Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Live in Athens, GA

As I was watching Noam Pikelny’s touring band – I know, with Bryan Sutton on guitar and the other musicians in the band, it isn’t fair to say that – I was struck with a thought I couldn’t avoid. Mostly the thought was motivated by mandolinist Jesse Cobb and his style versus that of the rest of the band. Jesse was wearing a “Newsies'” style-hat (see below), converse All-Stars (at least that is what they looked like from the cheap seats), a grin and sense of humor that let everyone know he was there to have a good time.


Now I have to set the stage of the auditorium and other artists. The auditorium is amazing. I spent  4 years in Athens, GA and never ventured to this side of campus. That being said, it isn’t exactly the Georgia Theatre or 40 Watt. This is a University quality music hall.

The band? Well, the band consists of Noam, Brian, Jesse, Luke Bella, and Barry Bales . Only Greg Garrison was filling in for Barry. So, this band includes talent from the Punch Brothers, Hot Rize, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, and Alison Krauss & Union Station. Only a bass player that has played with John Scofield, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, and Vassar Clements is filling in for the bass player from AKUS? Okay, I’m sold.

So now, back to my thought. I’m a little embarrassed to express it. The thought is very not bluegrass. FYI, this is not your grandfather’s bluegrass blog.

Jesse on stage kind of reminded me of Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was the fun-loving, joke-busting man of the group. And, he is an amazing mandolin player and song-writer. His choice track of the night was “The McCoury Way,” titled as such because he thinks it sounds like something Ronnie would play.

Luke Bella has the pop sensibilities, looks and vocal range of a  guy like Chris Thile. He’s the Raphael.  For what its worth, Raphael was always my favorite.  There were several great moments, but his stand-out track of the night was definitely the encore. The band “sent him out” by himself and he performed an amazing, totally acoustic version of “Temperance Reel.”

Bryan Sutton is Leonardo . Despite the fact that this was Noam’s band, he willingly let Bryan take the lead. Whether this perception has anything to do with Noam’s unwillingness to sing or Bryan’s stage persona, who cares? Bryan lead several tracks on the night, always signaled by an explosive lead-in that reminded everyone in the building of his status as bluegrass music’s greatest guitarist.

That leaves Noam as Donatello.  Whether through his playing or banter with the fans post show (I heard him openly discuss Noam Chomsky’s political leanings and his knowledge of instruments), Noam immediately impresses upon everyone that he is “the smartest guy in the room.” On stage, he has a sort of boyish innocence and humbleness that further propagates Bryan’s leadership. His playing style on this night – despite the banjo’s projection – is reserved yet inspirational.

Fortunately for me and my comparison, Greg subbed in for Barry on this evening and I don’t have to pigeon-hole him as a Ninja Turtle (of which there are only four, not five). Nonetheless, he’d be Shredder for his capability more than his demeanor. There were several impressive bass runs throughout the night, all met with the usual audience appreciation. Can’t wait to see him again on Halloween with Leftover Salmon!

In addition to Luke’s “Temperance Reel” noted above, stand-out cuts from the evening also included  the full band, all acoustic encore. These two tracks really emphasized the acoustics of the room and came as a nice contrast to the amplified set. As Bryan said at the beginning of the show, “excuse us while we plug in our acoustic instruments.”

So why are we being treated to such a treat of this bluegrass super group? Well, Noam and Bryan teamed up with Ronnie McCoury, Stuart Duncan, and Mike Bub to record “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.” The album, a nod to 1976’s “Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe,” is the result of two months Noam spent learning Kenny’s parts to the original recording note-for-note on the banjo. Although a few tracks from the album were played in concert, the band also performed a stand-out “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” to include one of Monroe’s lyrical offerings. The song was introduced as the “only known collaboration between Monroe and Hank Williams.”

As with the best bluegrass concerts, the evening ended with the band meeting fans and signing autographs in the auditorium. Noam was a hit with those that waited after the show. He looked genuinely pleased to be spending a few minutes with every fan, chatting about all the great topics nervous fans can invent. I bought a pre-signed poster, so rather than resigning it he asked if it would be okay to add a thought bubble. I said of course.  The resulting bubble reads “I haven’t visited JamGass.net in at least an hour!”

Well, Noam, I haven’t listened to “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” in at least an hour.


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