February 27, 2014
As banjo extraordinaire Noam Pikelny and friends walked on stage at Wellin Hall last Friday night, I had no idea what to expect. Not knowing much about the bluegrass genre, I showed up in response to the general hype surrounding this all-star performance—and my curiosity was rewarded thoroughly. Although Noam Pikelny led the group, he was joined by equally distinguished artists Bryan Sutton (guitar), Luke Bulla (fiddle), Barry Bales (bass) and Jesse Cobb (mandolin).
The group came out hot with their first tune, “Speed Bump,” astounding the audience with their remarkable technical abilities. The Wellin audience was stiff, but heartily appreciative. From the beginning, the performance was flavored with an informal “jam sesh” feel that left the audience with the impression of having been inducted into a secret world of bluegrass, normally impossible to witness save for backstage at a music festival.
The program featured a wide variety of songs within the bluegrass genre. The group played both new and traditional tunes, showcasing their vast knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the rich history of bluegrass. While these musicians clearly had the energy and the chops to play a fully upbeat set, they weren’t afraid to show their more sensitive side with the sultry sounds of “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” a Bill Monroe classic.
Throughout the evening, every artist was given the opportunity to flaunt his particular talent. The group shared and passed melodies, and every man soloed over almost every tune, eliciting whoops and cheers from an invigorated audience. Each member of the group contributed several of his own originals to the set list, sometimes combining their charts into medleys that built one on top of the next.
Bulla showed off his vocal gift on several tunes, including an original, “The Valley,” from his EP released in 2011. Sutton’s considerable prowess on guitar was also accompanied by a lovely set of vocal chords, which he exhibited on several charts, often times in harmony with the other group members.
The group’s engaging stage presence and obvious mastery of their instruments were further enhanced by the fact that they clearly enjoy each other’s company. Following their rendition of Cobbs’ “McCoury Way,” this exceptional mandolin player’s only comment was, “What a treat to get to play with these guys.”
The group obliged an enthusiastic audience by returning to the stage to play an un-mic’d encore. As they stood five across at the front of the stage, Bales took a killer bass solo which was applauded by the audience and fellow musicians alike. The group ended the night with an upbeat rendition of “Hangman’s Reel,” in which Cobb and Sutton engaged in an impromptu solo battle, to the endless gratitude of the audience, now on its feet.
I feel that I could not have experienced a better introduction to the knee-slapping, toe-tapping world of bluegrass music than through these five great artists, all playing together here at Hamilton College.