Artsweek

Steve Martin and the Rangers Kick Some Bluegrass

“Critics often call me a Renaissance man,” a straight-faced Steve Martin said into the microphone. “But they forget to mention the thing that really makes me a Renaissance man … I carry small pox.”

Whether the term “Renaissance man” is accurate or not, Martin is certainly an entertainer of the highest caliber, somehow managing to simultaneously be honest, ironic, profound and accessible in every one of his artistic mediums — be it stand-up comedy, acting, writing or badass bluegrass banjo.

And so comedian-turned-actor-turned-writer-turned-musician Steve Martin hit the Granada’s stage with his newest outfit, North Carolina-based group the Steep Canyon Rangers, last Sunday. Although the two parties often work independently and have received awards for their individual output, Martin and the Rangers have been touring and working together for about three years, proven by their seamlessness performance.

The show was comprised solely of Martin’s own original music, much of which came from his Grammy award-winning first album, “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.” After a high-spirited opening song to get the audience’s attention, the group went into a slower tune, during which Martin encouraged the audience members to imagine themselves “sitting on a little row boat on a sunny day, going down some little stream … somewhere in a very scary part of Kentucky.” Joking aside, the tune set the pace, indicating that this wasn’t “the Steve Martin show” — this was a bluegrass show, first and foremost.

And with fame as great as Martin’s, I’d say this distinction was in itself an impressive feat. Although Martin did entertain the audience with comedy between tunes and stood out from the Rangers in terms of attire, it was obvious that the group’s playing was truly a collaborative effort. The Rangers’ lead singer, Woody Platt, sang lead vocals on more than a few songs, Mike Guggino’s mandolin constantly provided the backbone rhythm to the tunes and bassist Charles Humphrey played a role in much of Martin’s comedy shtick. Even the ever-so-handsome Graham Sharp, a banjo player himself, took several hearty solos, and Nicky Sanders tended to steal the stage with his raving, complex fiddle solos and hectic elfin-like dancing.

Such cooperation was obvious in the third song of the night, which Martin co-wrote with Gary Scruggs, son of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. Appropriately named “Daddy Played the Banjo,” the tune is clean and melodic, featuring vocal harmony and the clear, high voice of Platt, describing a rather picturesque scene between a father and son.

The next tune, “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back,” offered a similar sweet tone with a different subject matter, giving an account of love that, as is Martin’s tendency, rings as slightly tortured and ambivalent.

Soon, however, Martin seemed to hit his one-liner stride, tweeting from the stage and candidly informing the audience, “I see my banjos as if they were children, meaning one of them probably isn’t mine.” He even included the band in the show’s comedy aspect, heckling them while he tuned his instrument and having Humphrey hand him a beer out of his refrigerator-sized standup bass. Beer in hand, Martin took a quick break and left the stage to the Rangers for a while.

As professional performers with top rankings in the bluegrass and folk world, the Rangers were more than capable of handling their two-song solo. Alone, the Rangers had a much darker tone, perhaps due to the removal of Martin’s second banjo and humorous attitude. Again, the group harmonized in what I can only describe as a bluegrass take on a silky, barber-shop quartet for a gorgeous rendition of the spiritual “I Can’t Sit Down.”

The second half of the show managed to be silly without distracting from Martin’s musicianship. Deftly alternating between two different styles of banjo playing — three-finger and clawhammer — he played dazzling solos while singing inherently Martin-esque lyrics, like “Even your mom said you were nuts!” (from “Jubilation Day”) and “Catholics dress up for Mass / and listen to, Gregorian chants. / Atheists just take a pass / watch football in their underpants” (“Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”).

And yet, when Martin sat solo in the middle of the stage to play the energetic but mournful tune, “The Great Remember (for Nancy),” his quiet concentration and twining, wistful melodies reminded the audience of the brooding comedian, who penned his own confessional autobiography, and a certain profundity returned to the performance.

It may go without saying that Santa Barbara ate it up. Martin and the Rangers played a double encore consisting of Martin’s ironic, feminist take on a traditional bluegrass “murder ballad” (you know, those wonderfully terrifying tunes about killing young ladies in the back of pick-up trucks?) and a cover of the classic tune, “Orange Blossom Special,” for which Sanders provided an insane fiddle solo, imitating the sound of a train and sampling songs from old staples to Beach Boys hits.

“I’m doing the two things I love most: comedy and charging people to hear music,” Martin joked during the set. The calm, elated expression on the star’s face throughout the entire night indicated that he has, at age 66, found his performance niche. While stand-up did play a large role that night, Steve Martin’s show lacked an air of cynicism seemingly inherent to many comics and emanated an earnestness that can only root from the act of simply doing what one loves.

“Critics often call me a Renaissance man,” a straight-faced Steve Martin said into the microphone. “But they forget to mention the thing that really makes me a Renaissance man … I carry small pox.”

Whether the term “Renaissance man” is accurate or not, Martin is certainly an entertainer of the highest caliber, somehow managing to simultaneously be honest, ironic, profound and accessible in every one of his artistic mediums — be it stand-up comedy, acting, writing or badass bluegrass banjo.

And so comedian-turned-actor-turned-writer-turned-musician Steve Martin hit the Granada’s stage with his newest outfit, North Carolina-based group the Steep Canyon Rangers, last Sunday. Although the two parties often work independently and have received awards for their individual output, Martin and the Rangers have been touring and working together for about three years, proven by their seamlessness performance.

The show was comprised solely of Martin’s own original music, much of which came from his Grammy award-winning first album, “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.” After a high-spirited opening song to get the audience’s attention, the group went into a slower tune, during which Martin encouraged the audience members to imagine themselves “sitting on a little row boat on a sunny day, going down some little stream … somewhere in a very scary part of Kentucky.” Joking aside, the tune set the pace, indicating that this wasn’t “the Steve Martin show” — this was a bluegrass show, first and foremost.

And with fame as great as Martin’s, I’d say this distinction was in itself an impressive feat. Although Martin did entertain the audience with comedy between tunes and stood out from the Rangers in terms of attire, it was obvious that the group’s playing was truly a collaborative effort. The Rangers’ lead singer, Woody Platt, sang lead vocals on more than a few songs, Mike Guggino’s mandolin constantly provided the backbone rhythm to the tunes and bassist Charles Humphrey played a role in much of Martin’s comedy shtick. Even the ever-so-handsome Graham Sharp, a banjo player himself, took several hearty solos, and Nicky Sanders tended to steal the stage with his raving, complex fiddle solos and hectic elfin-like dancing.

Such cooperation was obvious in the third song of the night, which Martin co-wrote with Gary Scruggs, son of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. Appropriately named “Daddy Played the Banjo,” the tune is clean and melodic, featuring vocal harmony and the clear, high voice of Platt, describing a rather picturesque scene between a father and son.

The next tune, “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back,” offered a similar sweet tone with a different subject matter, giving an account of love that, as is Martin’s tendency, rings as slightly tortured and ambivalent.

Soon, however, Martin seemed to hit his one-liner stride, tweeting from the stage and candidly informing the audience, “I see my banjos as if they were children, meaning one of them probably isn’t mine.” He even included the band in the show’s comedy aspect, heckling them while he tuned his instrument and having Humphrey hand him a beer out of his refrigerator-sized standup bass. Beer in hand, Martin took a quick break and left the stage to the Rangers for a while.

As professional performers with top rankings in the bluegrass and folk world, the Rangers were more than capable of handling their two-song solo. Alone, the Rangers had a much darker tone, perhaps due to the removal of Martin’s second banjo and humorous attitude. Again, the group harmonized in what I can only describe as a bluegrass take on a silky, barber-shop quartet for a gorgeous rendition of the spiritual “I Can’t Sit Down.”

The second half of the show managed to be silly without distracting from Martin’s musicianship. Deftly alternating between two different styles of banjo playing — three-finger and clawhammer — he played dazzling solos while singing inherently Martin-esque lyrics, like “Even your mom said you were nuts!” (from “Jubilation Day”) and “Catholics dress up for Mass / and listen to, Gregorian chants. / Atheists just take a pass / watch football in their underpants” (“Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”).

And yet, when Martin sat solo in the middle of the stage to play the energetic but mournful tune, “The Great Remember (for Nancy),” his quiet concentration and twining, wistful melodies reminded the audience of the brooding comedian, who penned his own confessional autobiography, and a certain profundity returned to the performance.

It may go without saying that Santa Barbara ate it up. Martin and the Rangers played a double encore consisting of Martin’s ironic, feminist take on a traditional bluegrass “murder ballad” (you know, those wonderfully terrifying tunes about killing young ladies in the back of pick-up trucks?) and a cover of the classic tune, “Orange Blossom Special,” for which Sanders provided an insane fiddle solo, imitating the sound of a train and sampling songs from old staples to Beach Boys hits.

“I’m doing the two things I love most: comedy and charging people to hear music,” Martin joked during the set. The calm, elated expression on the star’s face throughout the entire night indicated that he has, at age 66, found his performance niche. While stand-up did play a large role that night, Steve Martin’s show lacked an air of cynicism seemingly inherent to many comics and emanated an earnestness that can only root from the act of simply doing what one loves.

 

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