For most people, the idea of a bluegrass show featuring comedian and actor (not to mention novelist, playwright, memoirist and noted art collector) Steve Martin might seem incongruous to the famous man they THINK they know.
But even the most casual of fans who might remember Martin from his ’70s “wild and crazy guy” phase will recall that a banjo has been present as long as they remember the existence of Steve Martin. Pickin’ and grinnin’ have gone hand in hand for the SoCal native from the very beginning, but it’s only in the last few years that Martin turned his attention to recording and playing live music in a serious way.
And make no mistake–Martin’s dedication to bluegrass IS serious. He’s now made two albums with North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers, a traditional bluegrass crew that was already making noise in acoustic-music circles well before the Hollywood Renaissance Man started trading licks with them. The International Bluegrass Music Association named Martin and the Steep Canyon boys’ as the group’s “Entertainers of the Year” for 2011—a salutation that Martin made into a between-song joke.
“If you’re not enjoying the show so far,” Martin announced roughly mid-show, while noting the IBMA award, “you’re wrong.”
One-liners between songs from Martin’s two bluegrass albums, 2009′s The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo and 2011′s Rare Bird Alert, were the rule for the night. Among the highlights from Martin’s banter:
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Steve, why a music career? Why now?’ And I say, ‘Guys! You’re in my band!’”
“There is a downside to touring without a drummer. No pot.”
“Tonight I’m doing two of my favorite things: Comedy, and charging people to hear music.”
While the jokes were certainly some of the highlights of the show, the chops of the players in the Steep Canyon Rangers, and Martin himself, were nothing to sneer at. Martin was a generous bandleader, giving each of the Rangers a chance for solo spots over the course of the night. At one point, Martin left the stage completely so the Rangers could strut their collective stuff, only popping up to hype them to the audience before leaving the spotlight again.
“Daddy Played the Banjo” was an early highlight, as was a new song I believe was called “Love Has Come for You.” Martin mixed his introductions of the Rangers with a steady diet of good-hearted mocking before launching into a strong series of songs including “The Crow,” “Jubilation Day” and the a cappella take of “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”
Martin delivered a little banjo knowledge about the three-finger vs. clawhammer playing styles before performing “The Great Rememberer (for Nancy),” and educated the crowd about murder ballads before “Pretty Little One.”
Throughout the show, the charm of Martin and his fellow musicians on stage at the sold-out show came through loud and clear, via Martin’s memorable asides and the rapid-fire delivery of the fine bluegrass band joining him. This summer’s show certainly lived up to the quality of Martin’s last visit to Red Butte Garden. Here’s hoping the Renaissance Man comes back next time he hits the road.
Dan Nailen has written about music, arts and culture in and around Salt Lake City for Salt Lake magazine, The Salt Lake Tribune and Salt Lake City Weekly since 1998. He's currently a contributor to saltlakemagazine.com, and you can find more of his work at SLCene.com.