Steep Canyon Rangers, Noam Pikelny deliver a bluegrass bonanza at the Mahaiwe

GREAT BARRINGTON — Between the individual artistry of banjo player Noam Pikelny and the ensemble brilliance of the Steep Canyon Rangers, music lovers at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center were privy to a double-barreled bluegrass bonanza on Sunday night.

The North Carolina-based Rangers are best known, in popular culture anyway, as comedian/banjo player Steve Martin's backup band. And they have released two albums with Martin. But it's a gross mis-characterization of the band's talent as a unit. It was their 2012 solo album, "Nobody Knows You" that won the band's only Grammy award. "Nobody" also won an award from the International Bluegrass Association for best graphic design that year.

The band combines the strong vocals of guitarist Woody Platt and banjo player Graham Sharp with the superior talent of mandolin player Mike Guggino and one of the great fiddle players in the world, Nicky Saunders. Bassist Charles Humphrey III and drummer Michael Ashworth hold down the beat.

On Sunday, the Rangers started the show with the powerful "Stand and Deliver," one of their classic openers. Guggino and Saunders traded solos during the song, which featured harmonies from Platt and Sharp. They followed that up with "Tell the Ones I Love". Both are numbers from the 2013 album, also titled "Tell the Ones I Love."

The 16-song, 90-minute set featured a number of highlights. Guggino's finest solo (out of many on Sunday night) probably came during an extended rendition of "Diamonds in the Dust", from 2015's "Radio." Platt, Sharp and Guggino harmonized beautifully on "Whiskey in the Afternoon".

Saunders's fiddle was prevalent in "Dakota Sioux," one of the encore songs. The other encore number was a deliberate backhanded swipe at North Carolina's anti-LGBTQ bill, "Monumental Fool."

Pikelny submitted a nine-song, 45-minute set that included several of his stellar banjo solos. Three of his first four numbers, "Waveland," Sugar Maple" and "Old Banjo," were from his latest release, "Universal Favorite," from earlier this year.

"Waveland" and "Sugar Maple" featured Pikelny's uncanny facility with the banjo, and he added vocals on "Old Banjo."

Pikelny downplays his voice in interviews, but he has a pleasing baritone and his lyrics are clever and well-phrased. Still, of his nine numbers, there were vocals in only three of them.

His Big Finish were covers: "Bye" from the "Stuck in Love" soundtrack by Steven Paul Smith; and Roger Miller's stellar "I've Been A Long Time Leavin' (But I'll Be A Long Time Gone)." It was a good one to end on.

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


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