Album Reviews

Noam Pikelny – Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe (Compass)

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Noam Pikelny plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill MonroeAs a member of that eclectic and eccentric outfit that calls itself the Punch Brothers, banjo player Noam Pikelny has helped bend the boundaries of bluegrass. Yet when he’s on his own, Pikelny tends to honor tradition, making music that reflects his roots.

Here, Pikelny stays true to his template once again. His new album boasts a complicated title, but the music essentially goes back to basics. It finds him covering the late fiddler Kenny Baker’s album of Bill Monroe’s instrumentals, essentially redoing the redo for banjo. A note-by-note recreation of Baker’s landmark 1976 recording, it has plenty of pluck, along with a strum and a sway. Thanks to an all-star ensemble—fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarist Bryan Sutton, mandolin player Ronnie McCoury and bassist Mike Bub—songs like “Road to Columbus,” “Brown County Breakdown,” “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Big Sandy River” become as stirring as they are sprightly, each an essential bluegrass blowout.

Scholars and enthusiasts will likely study this album as some kind of marvel. Everyone else will appreciate it for what it is—a riveting, rousing delight.

– Lee Zimmerman

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