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.