Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
A wise man I know once stated that virtuosity without soul is simply talent.
I think what he meant was that there are many talented musicians born and created, but it is the few who manage to bridge the gap to listener in a way that creates a lasting connection.
Such an association is deeply personal and that the person in question was listening to a very highly regarded bluegrass outfit at the time—and was about to walk out of their performance—speaks to the individuality of music appreciation. How does a performer satisfy artistic and creative impulses while simultaneously creating a bond with an audience that is largely incapable of speaking the language of the performer?
As an artist one can’t satisfy everyone, so you may as well please yourself. One presumes that on Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail Noam Pikelny has met his own expectations and is comfortable realizing that there are many who will not understand or appreciate his musical soul.
At 45 minutes and 12 tracks, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail is a generous allocation of music that should challenge and be appreciated by most listeners of modern acoustic, stringband music.
Using several core band configurations, Pikelny and producer (and fellow Punch Brother) Gabe Witcher employ Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Mark Schatz (bass) on about a half-dozen tracks each, often together but occasionally in a trio or other setting. The resulting sounds are charming and soothing, restful in their assuredness and yet engaging as a result of their stellar execution.
Instrumentally, the album takes several distinct turns while traveling a boundary-challenging road. “The Broken Drought,” one of several Pikelny originals featured, would not appear out of place on the recent Goat Rodeo Sessions album. On the other hand, the song that comes just before it—Art Stamper’s “Pineywoods” featuring Stuart Duncan in duet with Pikelny—is as down-home as music gets, an expansive meditation of rural life.
Despite its artistic challenge, tradition is not far away throughout the album. Steve Martin joins Pikelny for a duo-performance of “Cluck Old Hen” and Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton form a trio with Pikelny for the old-timey sounding “Bear Dog Grit.”
Two vocal tracks are included and each challenges the decision not to include additional singers. Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) sings Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird,” the seafaring song of unattainable love. An aching reading, O’Donovan creates tradition out of a contemporary song, providing three-hundred years of history within her hushed performance. Tim O’Brien’s languid take on Henry Thomas’ “Bob McKinney” is augmented by Mike Compton’s mandolin as well as Duncan and Schatz, crafting the bluesy, ragtime song to excellent effect.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail arrived in my mailbox. That the album bridges the musical language barrier that exists between this listener and someone of Pikelny’s obvious ability is but one indication that there is more than a little something powerful going on within these highly refined and yet soulful tunes.