In discussing his reasoning behind a new solo project that truly is solo, Noam Pikelny sounds like someone driven not so much by an artistic challenge but a personal one.
Celebrated for his tenure in the audacious string band known as Punch Brothers and a reputation as one of the pre-eminent banjo players of his generation, Pikelny stepped away from the band life to cut his fourth album, “Universal Favorite,” as a true solo record. There are no other musicians. What you hear is just Pikelny on a few vintage guitars and, of course, banjo, playing original tunes, traditional songs and cross-generational covers (Josh Ritter’s “Folk Bloodbath,” Roger Miller’s “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’”). The recording takes its cue from a live show Pikelny began cultivating in 2016 that worked in a similarly unaccompanied setting.
He insists that the premise for the program and the album was an experiment. But in some ways, it comes across almost as a personal dare.
When you have multiple instruments playing together, you have this competition for sonic real estate.
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“Most people know me as a member of Punch Brothers, as somebody who has mostly been onstage with five-piece bands for his entire career,” said Pikelny, who performs Saturday at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “But I’ve always subscribed to the idea that any good musician should be able to hold court onstage with just themselves, their instrument and their voice. Somehow, though, I had allowed myself to be exempt from that belief. I think I was just really comfortable in that Punch Brothers habitat. It’s easy to get comfy in a situation playing with such strong musicians. They’re supporting you and everyone is musically feeding off each other. So, finally, it was clear to me that I really needed to bite the bullet and do the solo shows.”
Among the most vibrant discoveries of the solo performances were the tonal details the banjo revealed. That’s especially evident on “Waveland,” the original instrumental composition that opens “Universal Favorite.” That the tune reveals a virtuosic technical command is perhaps not a surprise to those familiar with his playing. His musicianship had won him the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2010. What is surprising, however, is the clarity and dimension revealed in the remarkable lightness of a performance when all other instruments are absent.
“The banjo has all these different shades of color that can be coaxed out of the instrument, but it’s easier to facilitate that when you have a wide-open canvas. When you have multiple instruments playing together, you have this competition for sonic real estate.
“So when I’m playing solo and kind of have the full canvas in front of me, it really exploits these subtleties of the banjo that are just not possible when there are other instruments surrounding it. I can play the instrument by barely activating the strings because there is just me and a microphone onstage. These elements of the instrument are seldom heard.”
The Cubs won the World Series. Donald Trump was elected president. Why can’t I be a singer?
But the solo setting of “Universal Favorite” and Pikelny’s performances underscores another sound: his singing voice. His hushed, expressive baritone gives much of the album an appealing antique intimacy and might prove to be the biggest surprise to his audiences, especially since Pikelny famously mocked his vocal abilities in a comedic “Funny or Die” promotional video for his 2011 album, “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail.”
“I just had to get over myself,” he said. “Depending on which angle you look at it from, I either made it a lot more difficult for myself by famously publicizing the fact I was a bad singer or made it so much easier in the sense expectations were so low that everybody would go, ‘Oh, no. He’s not going to be singing.’ So I finally just got over myself and thought, ‘You know what? Singing makes these songs better and makes the show a truer representation of what I’m interested in musically right now.’
“Plus, I figured, hey, the Cubs won the World Series. Donald Trump was elected president. Why can’t I be a singer? All previous expectations have been removed.”
If you go
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 16
Where: Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville