Thanks in no small part to the novelty of actor Steve Martin’s high-profile and legitimately great The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, the banjo is having something of a “moment,” which works out well for Noam Pikelny. As the lead banjoist for the phenomenal Punch Brothers and recipient of the first “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” in 2010, Pikelny has earned the clout to release the predominantly instrumental Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, his first solo album since 2004. The set not only highlights Pikelny’s unimpeachable technical skill, but also the breadth of possibilities for the use of the banjo as a lead instrument.
Though he’s joined by some of the finest contemporary musicians, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Pikelny and producer Gabe Witcher keep the focus entirely on the banjo. His performances balance a remarkable degree of precision with an easy-going, effortless mastery of tone. To that end, standout tracks like “Boathouse on the Lullwater” and “Jim Thompson’s Horse” allow Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail to serve as a musician’s showcase for Pikelny.
What’s more impressive about the album is the growth that it captures in Pikelny’s compositions. The Punch Brothers’ two albums have been characterized by truly inspired, progressive compositions that push the boundaries of traditional acoustic music, and it’s clear that his tenure in that band has paid dividends for Pikelny. The melodic lines he’s written for “The Broken Drought” and the spectacularly named “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer” twist back on themselves and meander in unexpected directions, and the layering of different lines on “Day Down” and “All Git Out” gives those songs real depth. The arrangements that he and Witcher prepared for the traditional “Cluck Old Hen” and Henry Thomas’s “Bob McKinney” are both respectful of the source material but still forward-thinking and inspired.
That one of the album’s highlights is a vocal track in no way diminishes the value of Pikelny’s instrumental work, but the cover of Tom Waits’s “Fish and Bird” is just gorgeous. Pikelny plucks the most delicate of tones from his banjo, as Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan (whose timbre and pitch-perfect clarity, it’s worth mentioning, make her a dead ringer for Alison Krauss) delivers a sensitive, devastating vocal turn. It makes for a lovely standalone single, but it also speaks to Pikelny’s adventurous perspective about how the banjo can be used in modern music. Even more than his impressive chops, it’s that creativity that makes Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail an essential, if likeably unassuming, listen.