Banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny makes a statement

GREAT BARRINGTON — Getting into the studio and creating a solo record was not a new experience for banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny, but this time around, he admitted that it did require some adjustment.

Chicago native Pikelny, 36, will be opening for the bluegrass icons Steep Canyon Rangers on Sunday night at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The show starts at 7.

"I love those guys, and I love their work," said Pikelny. "It will be fun to tour with these guys and get to see them do their thing on a regular basis."

Pikelny began playing banjo at age nine. He began his professional career as a member of the bluegrass band Leftover Salmon in 2002. He also is a founding member of the Punch Brothers, another bluegrass heavyweight. But he will be touring solo in support of his latest album, "Universal Favorite," released earlier this year on Rounder Records.

"This is the fourth album I've released that I'd describe as a 'solo' album," he explained. "But on the previous three, I had people playing with me. 'Universal Favorite' is the first record I've ever done that features just me. I play banjo, guitar, assorted other instruments and sing. There was no layering, no overdubbing. It's all me."

The actual process of creating the album, said Pikelny, "was such a personal statement. There was no hiding on this one. When I was part of an ensemble, there's a shared work ethic. But this was very direct."

The recording of the record "was exhilarating at first," said Pikelny. "But that wore off."

The work became more intense, he said, when he realized he had to include more songs with his vocals in them.

"I'm best known as an instrumentalist," he said. "But after a few weeks, I realized that the album was in danger of becoming one long banjo recital. It became more important, to me, to write and record songs that shed more light on my musical past. I wanted the record to encapsulate my shows as a live performer, but after a while, I realized there was a real blind spot on the record if I didn't include more songs with vocals."

Pikelny, the winner of the first-ever Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2010, said his plans for Sunday's set will be mostly cuts from "Universal Favorite," although he plans a few Leftover Salmon and Punch Brothers songs, as well.

"I'm primarily focused on the solo stuff, but I plan to spread it around a little," he said.

Reach staff writer Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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