Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center
August 25, 2011
Better than: Wearing a fake arrow through your head.
Most comedians are lucky to have one straight man. When Steve Martin plays the banjo, he has five.
Of course, those five men are kick ass musicians -- the Steep Canyon Rangers, a quintet of Woody Platt (guitar, lead vocals), Graham Sharp (banjo, harmony vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin, harmony vocals), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass, harmony vocals), and Nicky Sanders (fiddle, harmony vocals).
The evening was equal parts comedy and music and both parts were equally good. Martin joked about everything and introduced almost every song with a joke or a story.
He teased the audience members seated behind the stage: "I just keep wondering, when they sold you those seats, did they say they're really close to the stage?"
He teased the rest of the audience: "This next song is a sing-along. But it has no lyrics. So good luck."
He teased other musicians: "I'm playing all my own music up here tonight and I think that distinguishes me from all other bluegrass bands because they play all their own music."
He teased the band: "People ask me, 'Why a music career? Why now?' And I say, 'Hey, you guys are my band!'"
For a minute, it seemed as if he might say something a little serious. He talked about how lonely being on the road as a comedian is and how much community there is when being on tour with a band instead. All of the bonding and talking and playing music on the bus.
"And I know this goes on 'cause I call and they tell me about it when I call them from my private plane," he said. "What's funny about that is that it's true."
A band member then chimed in: "Except you never called."
They played a number of songs from Martin's two bluegrass albums, The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo and Rare Bird Alert, including "The Great Remember," "Hide Behind a Rock," "The Crow," "Jubilation Day" and "Wally on the Run," the last of which is about his dog always begging him to throw the ball a million times and him finally agreeing to throw it just once. The music imitated the sounds of the dog barking and then crying and then bars and bars that would make you swear you could see Wally racing across the yard, fur flying, silly sloppy grin on his face as he gets Martin to throw the ball again. At the song's end, Wally dashed onto the stage to retrieve a treat from Martin.
And then, after what seemed like just minutes after the opening number, it was 9:35: "We have come to our final song," Martin announced. "Don't worry. We have 17 encores planned. I have enjoyed fingersyching to the albums played offstage."
After several rounds of bowing and the first of two standing ovations that night, Martin and the band left the stage. As promised, they quickly returned for an encore. The played the classic bluegrass song, "Orange Blossom Special."
The fiddle player was beyond good. I've never heard anything like it. Ever. He played at the pace of a high-speed train and threw in bits of a zillion other songs.
At 10:05, they took their leave for real.
So much of bluegrass is the sounds of life, trains and summer breezes, celebration and mourning, and, in Steve Martin's case, even a dog barking and crying. Last night, the instruments (and voices) told the stories Martin has written with profundity and subtlety and joy and heartache.
It is amazing what the banjo (and the mandolin, fiddle, guitar and bass) can do in such clearly expert hands.
It was a great night.
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But Martin himself reviewed the show best. At one point, he told the crowd, "If you're not enjoying the show, you're wrong."
Personal Bias: I've always been a fan of Steve Martin's comedy, and I dig bluegrass. So, I suspected I might like the show. But I never imagined he and the band would be quite so funny and so musically impressive.
By the Way: Martin's latest album was available for sale at the show on vinyl. He's so hip.