Friday, February 21, 2014
Noam Pikelny & Friends at Sinclair, Cambridge 2/19/14
I dimly recall growing up that in order to truly be into Bluegrass music, you had to also like at least two of the following: Jesus, NASCAR, Recreational Vehicles, and pot. Contrary to the suspicions of many, politics was open to interpretation. My dad (a Democrat and a politician) always did well campaigning at bluegrass festivals. Also, Bill Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass" was a lifelong Democrat who once refused to appear with Richard Nixon on the Grand Old Opry. Still, to attend a concert or festival was to immerse oneself in particular culture. It was a homey, friendly culture, but one with unspoken assumptions and rules.
Now, I have always enjoyed the music. However, for most of my life--of the options listed--I could really only get interested in Jesus (and then only an academic East Coasty, Liberal Puritan way). Now the medium is hot and the fan base has expanded a bit. The music, itself has as well (much to the consternation of traditionalists). Today, I still like the culture and find that the form has become broader and more adventurous than in the past.
Anyway, this was my basic motivation for dragging my wife to see Noam Pikelny at the Sinclair on a Wednesday night of all things. It should be noted that I had seen Noam play live twice before. The first was during his "day job" as banjoist for the Punch Brothers. The second was with his "Friends" at Grey Fox. Grey Fox is a festival and I was way in the back of a field conversing with my own family and friends, so I was looking forward to another chance to see them up close.
The actual name of the band is Pikelny, Sutton, Bulla, Bales and Cobb. Some of these musicians are up-and-comers. Others have already arrived. Their sound is certainly bluegrass. However, there are also strong undertones of Irish and English fiddle music as well as Jazz. By the standards of their people, they are considered edgy and experimental, which may be why they each seem to have gotten to choose their own tie/vest/blazer combination. Monroe would have never allowed such a thing.
This was the beginning their most recent tour. For reasons that no doubt made sense to them, they began it at the Sinclair in Cambridge. I have attended concerts at this venue before. It is a clean, modern, relatively small facility that will no doubt grow in character and grime as it ages. Right now it feels a bit like the small stage at a college or well-equipped high school. I don't think it is by accident.
In fact, the only problems I have had with watching a concert there can be traced to its proximity to a couple of famous universities. Which is to say, if you are a bored college student it is a simple thing to fill your evening in this place. The Sinclair knows this and adjusts accordingly. For example, the draft beers all seem to be IPA's, which is annoying (though they do appear to have a fine selection of 16oz zombie beers if that is your thing). Weekend concerts can be overwhelmed by folks bouncing up and down yelling "whoooo" and pointing at the band that they hadn't heard of until just then. Loud conversations and crazy dead-dancing drunkards who inevitably (and accidentally) slap you in the head are also a problem. Of course that is the case--albeit to a lesser extent--in a lot of places in Greater Boston. Also, having been to college, I can't judge. The Sinclair is safe and friendly. It's just that one needs to expect certain interruptions and more of them here than at some other venues in town.
It turns out there were some changes for this concert. Most noticeably, there were chairs. The Sinclair is usually a standing-room sort of place. A short conversation with the bartender led to the explanation that they do this when the act may draw "a large number of...elders". Awkward. I chose to sit. The other change is that, even though two college girls set up (standing) right behind me and proceeded to chat during the song breaks, the threat of human interaction wasn't that bad. They clearly knew their stuff and were relatively attentive during the actual music so I did not mind the occasional blow to the head from what I assume was a purse and the odd clapping in 5/4 (not a bluegrass rhythm) next to my ear.
Besides, the band was fantastic. There is something about Pikelny that makes you feel like you know him. Folks called out to make him sing (he didn't). His nickname--in case you want to be in the know--is "Pickles". His understated humor (when I could hear it) was spot on. The seats made you feel like perhaps you were in his living room. This feeling of accessibility helped the move the set along. Also, he shared the stage well. Other members of the band sang and each performer got time to feature their own work. This--thanks to the varying interests and influences of the band--aided in connecting to a largely instrumental set.
Should you check them out? Do you like Bluegrass, Old-Time, Folk, and such? Would you like to? Yes. If you don't like those things...then no.
Here is the web page.