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Steve Martin Makes Beautiful Music With the Banjo

“I hope he’s funny.”

Queuing into the Granada theater late on a Friday, this overheard snippet of conversation echoed through in my head. After all, this wasn’t an evening of comedy with Steve Martin, this was an evening of bluegrass and banjo; Steve Martin performing with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Was he going to be serious? Obviously there was potential; his album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, won a Grammy (for Best Bluegrass Album) earlier this year.

[media-credit id=16616 align="alignleft" width="250"][/media-credit]Besides being entertaining on camera, Steve Martin is also an entertaining writer with a long history with the banjo (watch old SNL for proof). And, if you’ve never listened to it, bluegrass is the most musical fun you can have for your sober dollar. With the fast, pumped-up tempo of trance or house music and an excess of twang, you can imagine bluegrass as the Bassnectar of the simpler, agrarian, bygone generations. Naturally, Steve Martin has taken to the genre like a fish to water. He is serious about the genre but isn’t afraid to play around and be himself; Steve Martin the songwriter is at his best when he is writing about whimsy.

Though Martin may write funny songs that play on conventions of the genre, he never becomes parody. Serious Steve showed his face on several instrumentals that were somehow face-melting. Though the Steep Canyon Rangers let him take the center stage for the first 10 minutes of the show (the same 10 minutes where press photographers were allowed to shoot) and gave him time for solos and his own songs, as the show progressed Martin shifted into a supporting role, playing along with the band through some classic bluegrass.

The Steep Canyon Rangers are no joke. They are young, but they have plenty of years playing between them. Hailing from North Carolina, they’ve toured the world, spreading the gospel of bluegrass. It was a joy to watch them play. Every member of the quintet played their heart out. Nicky Sanders, the half-man/half-fiddle who showed such virtuosity over his instrument that not only could he casually toss in a sublet rock ’n’ roll riff or classical lick into a song so quickly that by the time you recognized it, it was gone, he could make his violin bark and whine like a dog. The bass player, who actually looked like a dog, kept up a furious tempo the whole night. When they weren’t playing, the Steep Canyon Rangers could transform into a four-headed a cappella machine that filled the space as well as when all six instruments were going full tilt.

The best part of it all, though, was that Steve Martin was really, really funny. You can’t tell from the album, but he is hilarious. From the first line he spoke, explaining that he wasn’t crazy, though he knew that he seemed as off the wall as “Jerry Seinfeld telling you that he’s just released an album of songs written for the bassoon.” By the third joke, one about celebrity rehab, the ushers and press were struggling to contain their laughter. By the fifth thing he said, the band was openly cracking up.

Every anecdote, every line, every fake song he would introduce, (“I’ve been listening to protest songs… so I wrote one… it’s called ‘I Think the Minimum Wage is Just Fine Where it is’”) hit hard. I’ve never seen old people (the majority of the crowd) have that much fun in my life. Bluegrass is so much better live; even if you can’t dance to it, the intimacy you’re able to get in a live setting just makes the band feel like your family at the best reunion picnic ever.

The show itself was beautiful in its simplicity. No fancy lighting or stage design, just the Rangers, Steve and Steve’s iPad (what do you write your set lists on?). They’ve been touring together for a while now, selling out shows wherever they go. They played together for two hours without a single dull minute. To close out the show, they played a bluegrass version of Steve Martin’s classic “King Tut.” And it was better than you could believe; the whole show, I mean. Every single person I passed walking out of the show was raving about it. Young or old, everybody enjoyed themselves. I certainly did. If you get a chance to see Steve Martin play bluegrass, or do anything for that matter, don’t let it pass.

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3 Comments

  1. I too saw the Scottsdale show, and my lone disappointment was when the lights came up! Unfortunately, Scottsdale Center for the Arts did a whoopie of a faux pax and ended the show before Steve and the Gang could come back for their encore of King Tut!

    I was laughing and smiling so wide all night long my jaws hurt!

    I was very impressed how Steve could hold his own with such accomplished bluegrass musicians. His album of original bluegrass songs is truly Grammy worthy, even to the novice ear, and definitely has the Steve Martin touch!

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. The Steve Martin Show in Scottsdale performed in front of 830 or so had the exact reaction. The Steve was hilarious, the Steep Rangers were tight and it was one of the best bluegrass shows I have ever seen (and my brother has been in a lot of them). I read The Steve’s autobiography (Born Standing Up), immediately after seeing the show and wished I had read it before hand. What a genius. I can’t imagine anyone not liking it, the book or the show. If the show gets to a DVD status, I will be first in line to purchase it, even if it is retail! Cheers, great writing Rowan, you were spot on!

  3. I just watched an old episode of The Muppet Show, featuring Steve Martin and was like, ‘I didn’t know Steve Martin played the banjo’. I was really impressed with how good he was. So good to see him back at it and featuring this underpromoted talent of his. Way to go Steve.

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