"This evening is about my two favorite things," Steve Martin announced halfway through his most excellent, sold out show with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Roberts Orpheum last night. "Comedy and charging people to hear music." Well, uh, that pretty much sums it up, except that Martin really seems to like playing music, too.
But before we continue with this review, one important question must be addressed: How the hell does the man manage to be good at everything?
He can do standup. He can sing. He can dance. He can play the ukulele. He can write long (two novels) or short (pieces for The New Yorker), screenplays or plain old plays (Picasso at the Lapin Agile). He gave us The Jerk, Roxanne and LA Story. (He also participated in The Pink Panther remake and its sequel, but those blemishes fade in the light of his earlier brilliance.) How many people would be content with just one of those accomplishments?
And now he is on a national tour that will include gigs at the New Orleans Jazzfest and Bonnaroo, performing tunes from his Grammy-winning album The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. (Not that Martin is a stranger to the Grammy; he already had a couple for comedy and another for his banjo-playing)
Maybe Steve Martin is more naturally talented and and industrious than the rest of us. But Friday night's show proved that there's another thing he's good at: surrounding himself with talented people, in this case, the Steep Canyon Rangers, a phenomenal bluegrass band out of Asheville, North Carolina.
Martin knows it, too. He played the part of the obnoxious, spoiled taskmaster (you know, Steve Martin), but plenty of times he left the spotlight to the Rangers, including the banjo player, Graham Sharp.
It was unclear how much of the audience came for the bluegrass and how much came for the comedy. In any case, they got plenty of both. Plus a special guest appearance by Martin's dog Wally, a phlegmatic yellow Labrador who wandered onstage during the rollicking instrumental "The Crow," lay down at Martin's feet and yawned.
He was likely the only one did for the entire hour and a half the band was onstage.
A few weeks ago in Slate, Nathan Heller suggested that the key to Martin's entire performance oeuvre is nostalgia. That's partially true -- who the hell plays the banjo anymore? -- but, as Martin wrote in the second number, "Daddy Played the Banjo," "a memory of what never was became the good old days." Instead Martin pays tribute to the old bluegrass melodies and then subverts them into a different kind of bluegrass song.
After the Steep Canyon Rangers brought the house down with the old spiritual "I Can't Sit Down," which they sang in exquisite four-part harmony, Martin joined them onstage and distributed copies of "the atheist hymnal": a single sheet containing the lyrics to "Atheists Don't Have No Songs." ("In their songs they have one rule: The 'h' in 'him' is always lowercase.") The Rangers again sang in harmony. Martin joined in loudly, proudly and gloriously (and deliberately) off-key.
There were musical jokes, too: In "Wally on the Run," Nicky Sanders' fiddle played the "role" of Wally (who, sadly, was led backstage at the end of "The Crow" and never re-emerged), barking and whining and galumphing happily after a rubber ball.
But perhaps the epitome of how well Martin and the band play off each other was "Jubiliation Day." In traditional bluegrass, this would be a song about, well, the Jubilee. Here it becomes a celebration of a breakup, endorsed by both Dear Abby and Martin's shrink. "I'll be over you by lunchtime!" Martin mock-snarled. "The sex was great...or that's what my best friend's brother said. Let's keep in touch!"
While Martin sang the comically-bitter lyrics, the band played some wild, top-notch bluegrass. Woody Platt ("Is that your real name?" Martin inquired, "or is it Alphonso Gorgonzola?") waled on the guitar, Charles Humphrey slapped the upright bass, Mike Guggino and Sharp picked double-time on the mandolin and banjo and Sanders fiddled so hard, you could see the flying strands of horsehair that came loose from his bow. And the audience laughed and clapped and stomped along.
"Jubilation Day" will be the title track of Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers' follow-up to The Crow. They plan to record it in August, once they finish this tour. "It's going to be a hit," Martin promised. "The week of its release, I'm going to die of a Vicodin overdose." Maybe, Steve, you could just let it become a hit on its own? Your songs, the Rangers' playing -- isn't that enough? Well, OK, maybe only if you throw in "Orange Blossom Special" (with Sanders' digressions into the "William Tell Overture" and "Ein Kleine Nachtmusik") and that bluegrass version of "King Tut," which is absurd and perfect enough to become a classic all over again.
Setlist: Pitkin County Turnaround Daddy Played the Banjo (Woody Platt, vocals) The Crow Late for School Words Unspoken Hoedown at Alice's Freddie's Lilt Turn Up the Bottle (Steep Canyon Rangers) Buncombe County Line (Steep Canyon Rangers) -- maybe? I Can't Sit Down (Steep Canyon Rangers) Atheists Don't Have No Songs Medley of old-time clawhammer banjo tunes Hide Behind a Rock (with Nicky Sanders on fiddle) Wally on the Run More Bad Weather on the Way Jubilation Day Saga of the Old West Calico Train (Woody Platt, vocals)
Encore: Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back Orange Blossom Special (cover, though Martin claims to "have a pretty good memory of writing that") King Tut