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"These are really big shoes to fill," he says, referring to the roots-based group's late banjoist Mark Vann. Vann, who died of cancer in March, left quite a void when he passed on to that great picking circle in the sky. In fact, his renown was such that during his illness, benefit shows were held in New York City (Mike Gordon, DJ Logic and John Medeski joined the effort) as well as on the Front Range. The fundraisers culminated with a sold-out Salmon performance at the Fillmore that featured jammerati such as Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Todd Park Mohr, Robert Randolph and members of Little Feat and the String Cheese Incident.
Now Pickelny, 21 and just a year shy of a degree in music from the University of Illinois, is stepping up to help fill the void.
"I don't think of myself as Mark's replacement," says Pickelny. "Although it must be really difficult for those guys when they look up and see that he isn't there. We talk about him all the time, though. It's not a taboo subject. He's known as the king of the rock-and-roll banjo. I'm just trying to take the next step with the band and carry the torch as best I can. The music has to go on, and I think he would want it this way. I see this as a kind of rebirth for the group."
Pickelny, who grew up in the Midwest and started learning the banjo when he was eight, says he originally sought to emulate the more progressive playing style of Béla Fleck. He took banjo classes at the Old Time School of Folk Music in Chicago in hopes of learning to play the instrument in an improvisational mode. But after learning the traditional picking style associated with Earl Scruggs, he took up with a few straight bluegrass outfits in Indiana. He later found his way to edgier roots ensembles such as the Bluegrassholes and, eventually, Leftover Salmon. Pickelny had the opportunity to meet the bandmembers when they played a 2001 show in Champaign, Illinois. He and Vann spent some time trading licks on Leftover Salmon's tour bus; that night, Pickelny was asked to join the performance on stage.
"It was one of those experiences that I could never have anticipated," he says. "I had some good friends who knew one of the guys in [Leftover Salmon], so when they came to town, I went up and knocked on the door of their bus. I wound up jamming with them for a few hours, and later that evening I sat in with them. Mark let me use one of his banjos that night. Who could possibly have foreseen that I would wind up playing in the band? When Mark got sick, they started compiling a list of players, and they contacted me."
Leftover's upcoming Halloween show at the Fillmore kicks off six weeks of touring and serves as Pickelny's official introduction to audiences. His tenure became official after a series of musicians took the stage with the group to fill in for Vann after he fell ill. When the erstwhile picker first got sick last September, some of roots music's best banjo players stood in his slot, including Tony Furtado, Scott Vestal, Matt Flinner, and Jeff Mosier of Blueground Undergrass. So far, Pickelny has performed live seven times with the band, and he says he is ready to help take Salmon's music to a new place.
"We've been having a good time," he says. "The gigs we've played have been great. I try to weave some of Mark's sound into my playing as a tribute to him. Mark was a great traditional player but also an outstanding progressive player. He played with a style that simulates guitar flat-picking, which allows for a greater range of dynamics. He really opened up the banjo neck for guitar-like soloing, and that's a big aspect of my playing. I once focused on country electric guitar -- you know, chicken pickin' -- we share that in common."
Leftover guitarist and vocalist Vince Herman is relieved to have finalized the lineup with Pickelny. One of the group's veterans, Herman says that he tired of trying to figure out what tunes he and the revolving replacement players had in common.
"It was fun, because everyone brought different things to the table," says Herman. "But you get a little weary trying to remember what it is you know with whoever is sitting in. So we're real psyched to have Noam step in. It's a trial by fire, and he's doing just fine. He's got a real distinct voice, and he takes it out there. He's not worried a whole lot about stepping out on a limb and being able to find his way back."
Salmon vocalist and mandolin and guitar player Drew Emmitt (who recently dedicated a solo album, Freedom Ride, to Vann) takes a philosophical tone when describing the current situation.
"We're probably more psyched now than we have been in a while," he says. "Initially, it was tough to tour without him. And it was hard not having a cohesive group. After Mark passed away, it was hard to go out on tour. It was one of the hardest things I've had to do in my life. But I think we have found new life with Noam. Though it has taken some time to get through this grief, there's a renewed excitement. We miss Mark terribly, and we'll never have that same chemistry, but we had to get past it. It'll all be good."