Sunday, December 11, 2011

Noam Pikelny at Smith's Olde Bar, 12/9

Finally, it could be ignored no longer. Jesse Cobb, eyes toward the ruckus upstairs, strummed an E minor chord, rocked back and forth, and belted a chorus in lock-step with the thunderous sound from above. “Last dance with Mary Jane/One more time to kill the pain.” Gabe Witcher on fiddle, picked up the lazy guitar riff, passing it to banjo player Noam Pikelny. Hilarity ensued.

Performing to a sold-out, multi-generational crowd in the tiny, oddly shaped Atlanta Room of Smith’s Olde Bar, Noam Pikelny’s group had continually tried to laugh off the Tom Petty cover band playing the main room upstairs, even though occasional bursts of sound through the open doorway threatened to sometimes derail Pikelny and co.’s acoustic bluegrass.

"Just in case you're confused, this is not the Tom Petty cover show," Pikelny had explained earlier in the evening, before launching into the first tune, a traditional-sounding original called “Jim Thompson’s Horse.” For the next two hours, the band — rounded out by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Mark Schatz — performed nearly all of Pikelny’s sophomore release, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, along with a few older originals and a smattering of bluegrass standards. Never once did they seem overly annoyed by what was happening above, but the extra noise had to be distracting.

Last time Pikelny appeared in Atlanta was as a member of the Chris Thile-led Punch Brothers — a thrilling, phenomenal band that plays a blend of modern bluegrass infused with popular music — at a packed Variety Playhouse. Though the Smith’s show had sold out a week before the concert, and fellow Punch members Witcher and Eldridge were in tow, this was a very different Atlanta experience.

Pikelny, the inaugural winner of Steve Martin’s bluegrass award, writes pure bluegrass tunes. But instead of using more traditional banjo rolls and techniques, he has taken a page from Bela Fleck’s playbook, expanding the instrument’s range and making use of the entire fretboard. His chords aren’t the usual fare, and his improvised lines sound jazz-based. Pikelny's version of bluegrass stays more grounded in tradition than his cohort Thile's compositions for the Punch Brothers, but the banjo player loves to push boundaries. It helps that he’s surrounded himself with the some of the bests purveyors of this new music, which is, in a sweeping generality, a young man’s game.

Throughout the night, the group played as a well-balanced, tight ensemble, with short solo breaks that always paid service to the song as a whole and not individual egos. O’Donovan lends her voice to one song on Beat the Devil, but here she shined on multiple occasions, including a duet with Witcher on Buck Owens’ “Before You Go.” Schatz, who performed clawhammer banjo on “Cluck Old Hen” (Steve Martin plays that part on the CD), also broke out his tap shoes for a stirring instrumental duet with Cobb.

In a fake documentary for Beat the Devil on funnyordie.com, Pikelny presents himself as diva vocalist who, despite his terrible voice, simply wants to sing a few tracks on his new album. This was obviously a joke, but Pikelny bared his fragile voice during an intimate version of the folk tune "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" to close the show. The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, yes. But we might not have to wait for long. The Punch Brothers are set to release an album in February; a tour through Atlanta, but perhaps not a repeat Pikelny vocal performance, is sure to follow.

- JR

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Josh Ritter at Variety Playhouse, 11/18; Kaki King at The Loft, 11/19

The weekend before Thanksgiving was full of music for me, as every good weekend should be. Friday night Josh Ritter returned to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse on his "mostly solo, mostly acoustic" tour. Zack Hickman, the bassist in the Royal City Band, with which Josh regularly tours, played upright and provided harmony on about half of the tunes; Sarah Harmer, from Kingston, Ontario, was a solid opener and also joined Josh for a song during the encore. It was a seated show, which is unusual for what I normally see at Variety, but it actually suited the vibe of the evening quite nicely.

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Here's the stellar set list with links to some guy's YouTube videos of the new tunes Josh played, the titles of which I'm totally guessing on. They're all pretty awesome.

  1. Come and Find Me
  2. Rumors
  3. Me & Jiggs
  4. Wolves
  5. Long Shadows
  6. Southern Pacifica
  7. The Temptation of Adam
  8. Rattling Locks
  9. Harrisburg
  10. Girl in the War
  11. [New Lover Now]
  12. You Don't Make it Easy Babe
  13. [Sarah -- a song inspired by Sarah Palin]
  14. Galahad
  15. Lantern
  16. Good Man
  17. Best for the Best
  18. [Untitled new song]
  19. Monster Ballads
  20. Kathleen
  21. To the Dogs or Whoever
  22. Change of Time

  23. Bone of Song
  24. Hard Times Come No More (with Sarah Harmer)
  25. Snow is Gone
Josh Ritter gets better and better every time I see him. He's someone I'd recommend anybody who loves music go see, because he is so good at what he does and always so happy to be doing it. He hinted that he'd be back on the road in the spring, so I've got my fingers crossed for another Atlanta stop.

***

ON SATURDAY night, Atlanta native, Kaki King, had a show at The Loft at Center Stage, her first hometown gig in quite some time. (Appropriately, the first song we heard over the sound system upon entering the venue was a Josh Ritter tune.) If you don't know of her, she's an innovative, mind-blowing guitarist. Among many other projects, she worked on scoring for the movie Into the Wild, a.k.a. was nominated for a Golden Globe along with Eddie Vedder. Yeah. She has also recorded and toured with the Foo Fighters, was a hand-double in the movie August Rush and has a bunch of awesome records out.

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She brought along seven different guitars -- many custom made for her -- and played them all, explaining what distinguished each of them as she went along. It was a super mellow show, but a ton of fun. CNN was there filming for an upcoming music segment; I'll try to remember to post a link when it airs. In the meantime, look Kaki up if she's new to you. She lends Atlanta some serious music cred.