Fresh off his Grammy Award win for Best Folk Album with the Punch Brothers for All Ashore, banjo player Noam Pikelny appeared with fiddler Stuart Duncan at DC’s City Winery on Tuesday for an evening of duets.
When people offered congratulations on the Grammy win, Noam said he wasn’t sure whether they meant the one he’d just won or “the 17 that Stuart has one.” That’s an exaggeration, though the Quantico, Virginia native won the award for Best Bluegrass Album in 1994 and 1996 as a member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. The Academy of Country Music also recognized Stuart as the Fiddle Player of the Year in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2004, and Specialty Instrument Player of the Year in 2006.
In addition to his Grammy with the Punch Brothers, Noam, though younger than Stuart, has an impressive resume. He received a Grammy nomination nominations in the Bluegrass category for his solo albums Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, in 2013, and Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, in 2015. The International Bluegrass Music Association selected the latter as its album of the year, and in 2014 and 2017, named him its banjo player of the year.
Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan perform “Tallahassee” via YouTube:
After opening with an instrumental tune, Noam and Stuart played Ricky Skaggs’s “I Know What It Means to Be Lonesome,” with Stuart singing. Following the song, Noam joked, “I cherish any opportunity to play music with this guy. I wish he felt the same way about me.” Noam went on to discuss why they didn’t tour together more often, and quipped, “We’re much less in demand than you might think.”
Next, they played a medley of Stuart’s “The Laird of Drumbliar” and Noam’s “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer.” Noam bantered a bit, saying that he hoped to visit Scotland for a belated honeymoon, for it’s dark, moist qualities. “We’ve narrowed it down to Scotland or my basement,” he said of his honeymoon possibilities.
“For balance purposes,” Noam said, they played a song about divorce, Pierce Pettis’s “My Life of Crime.” Stuart noted his objections to the divorce part of the song, to which Noam responded, “You don’t approve of the divorce part, but you’re okay with all the other criminal activities?”
Noam wrote “Mooretown Hop” while at his brother’s wedding, with the goal of working Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Backstep” into the bridge. Bill Monroe wrote the tune for “Old Riverman” and turned to John Hartford for lyrics. Noam mentioned that he regretted avoiding John Hartford because his parents had his albums, making him “uncool.”
Noam shared an interesting fact about guitar legend Jerry Reed: he plays the coach in the Adam Sandler film The Waterboy. Long before that, however, he made an album of duets with fellow master Chet Atkins. Noam and Stuart played a reworked tune from that album, “Stumpwater.”
On the next tune, Noam played acoustic guitar. He then related a bizarre story about being mistaken for a foreigner because he had written a bizarre tagline on twitter, “As seen on Belarus has got talent.” A driver from a venue kept complimenting him on his English, leading him to discover that they’d mined this bizarre kernel from the web from oh-so-many years ago.
“Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” came from the Kenny Baker album. Kenny Baker played fiddle in the band of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. When Kenny recorded his album, Bill Monroe showed up as a surprise, and played on the whole album. Stuart revealed that he plays a fiddle he bought many, many years ago at the Bean Blossom Festival from Kenny.
With Noam on resonator guitar, the duo played Merle Haggard’s “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive.” Noam soloed on his banjo, playing “Waveland,” which the Chicagoland native recorded the morning after the Cubs won the World Series. Stuart returned, and they finished their set with “Tallahassee.” They returned for an encore, playing the “Kentucky Waltz.”
In contrast to other bluegrass shows I’ve attended recently, Noah Pikelny and Stuart Duncan put less emphasis on the nasal tonal qualities often associated with bluegrass and had strains of classical music technique in their playing. Their playing was very melodic, very soothing, very smooth. These guys are the real deal, sophisticated players who put on a great show.