Noam Pikelny and the Punch Brothers will perform Feb. 26
By David Cohen
One of the top banjo players in the world is Jewish, and he’s coming to Atlanta.
Noam Pikelny is at the forefront of progressive bluegrass music in the United States with his band, the Punch Brothers, and his solo work. On Feb. 26, Pikelny will make his first appearance in Atlanta since 2012 with the Punch Brothers at the Tabernacle.
Pikelny grew up in a Jewish family on the north side of Chicago and attended the Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago. He picked up the banjo when he was 9 years old and is one of the most in-demand musicians in the genre.
In 2010 he won the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. In 2014 he was named the IBMA banjo player of the year. From attending Jewish day school to leading the next generation of banjo greats, Pikelny said bluegrass music and culture were quite a leap from his Jewish upbringing.
“Growing up as part of a Jewish family in Chicago and being infatuated with bluegrass, at first it was a little confusing for a 9-year-old kid,” Pikelny said. “Bluegrass in its essence is such a rural, Southern type of music. And so much of the tradition from the original days of bluegrass is defined by spiritualty and gospel music. The further I traveled with bluegrass, the more uncharted it felt for me as a kid from Chicago. I found myself making music and sharing tunes from people across the country that had very different upbringings. That is something to me that I really cherish.”
Nowhere was this difference in culture more apparent than at an early performance with Lora Hebert and the Hoosier Prairie Band.
“One of my very first professional shows was in Indiana at what was supposedly the Porter County Park Festival,” he said. “My dad was driving me down there, and he went to synagogue in Chicago that morning. The plan was that he would pick me up after, and we would drive to the festival. So we roll up to the festival, and instead of the Porter County Park Festival, it was actually the Porter County Pork Festival. I think we were probably the only people that day who made a beeline from a temple to a county pork festival.”
From touring and recording with the Punch Brothers to receiving awards and accolades for his solo work, Pikelny continues to break ground in progressive bluegrass. He follows in the footsteps of Jewish progressive bluegrass mandolinists David Grisman and Andy Statman, as well as banjo legend Bela Fleck — all of them proudly Jewish and highly respected in bluegrass circles.
Pikelny and the Punch Brothers are performing at the Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St., Atlanta, at 8 p.m. Feb. 26. Tickets are $43.50 and available at concerts.livenation.com/event/0E004D6CB21D6FDC. Get more info on Noam and his music at www.noampikelny.com.