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Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers @ The Riverside Theater

July 24, 2013

Jul. 25, 2013
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Photo credit: Erik Ljung
The question wasn’t whether Steve Martin was going to be funny during his bluegrass and Americana concert Wednesday at The Riverside Theater. It was by how much, and in what context.

The answer is that it was almost like a trip back to his late-’70s popular peak in stand-up comedy—albeit from the seasoned perspective that in his roles as actor, playwright and novelist he has added to his curriculum vitae over the past 35 years. At times it appeared as though the straight-faced, self-satisfied schmuck character he perfected during the Carter administration was fronting a crack acoustic band with his quite accomplished banjo playing. 

Martin’s fans who go back to the time when Let’s Get Small and Wild And Crazy Guy achieved rare platinum sales certifications for comedy albums should recall that his instrument was a regular, if not heavily emphasized, component of his shtick (his 1981 LP, The Steve Martin Brothers was, in fact, half comedy and half banjo music). So, his quip that some in the audience might think his desire to helm a musical tour was akin to Jerry Seinfeld playing dates featuring his favorite bassoon repertoire struck a rare, disingenuous note this evening.

But with North Carolinian veteran ’grassers Steep Canyon Rangers and Martin’s fellow native Texan, Edie Brickell, acting respectively as his straight men and songwriting muse, the musicianship and lyrical craft displayed throughout 20 numbers over nearly two hours wasn’t at all laughable. Animated though he was during his spoken funny bits, a nigh-stoic demeanor distinguished his string picking. And for the benefit of bluegrass newbies, he differentiated for the sold-out hall the two styles in which he played: the three-fingered, pick-assisted manner popularized by the late Ernest Scruggs (one of Martin’s earliest instrumental inspirations) and the more historic clawhammer way, which he quipped sounds like a Kama Sutra sex position.

Naturally enough, Martin’s skewed humor has found its way into some of his work with the Rangers as well. Notable among the few purposefully hilarious tunes with them is “Jubilation Day,” about a romantic break-up for numerous right and understandable reasons. Its titular resemblance to a sacred piece is likely no accident, especially in light of the genre’s Christian tradition and the night’s other biggest hoot, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” an a capella rumination on non-believers’ lack of hymnody wherein Martin broke into a fine facsimile of the kind of shouted tenor prominent among some of Southern gospel’s more powerful singers.

Martin joked about Edie Brickell’s feminine, civilizing presence on the troupe’s tour bus, but it was truthfully the case on stage. The songs she performed from her and Martin’s 2013 collaborative LP, Love Has Come For You, harken to same emotional wellsprings of loss, redemption out of transgression and plainspoken slices of life that connect country music to its folk roots. But the band demonstrated that the creation of rootsy music needn’t be mired in outmoded technology. Brickell spoke of how she and Martin collaborated by his sending her MP3 files of music to which she would compose songs, and she looked up the true story told in “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Train” via a Google search for Southern train lore. Moreover, “When You Get To Asheville” actually mentions a pining lover asking her paramour to email her.

Meanwhile, a couple of the Rangers vied to outshine their celebrity benefactor. Stand-up bassist Charles Humphrey III and mandolin player Mike Guggino both got in some virtuosic licks, while fiddler Nicky Sanders sawed on his ax as if he were battling a tornado, his arm interpolating bits of classical music, TV themes and Beatles tunes into the songs’ given melodies.

Martin’s double whammy of instrumental prowess and high yuks-per-minute ratio, however, didn’t fail the Riverside attendees who walked out grinning.


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