Sunday, March 20, 2011

Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers, 3/19/11 at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I wasn't sure quite what to expect Saturday night when I went to see Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers. My guess was that there would be a mixture of fans of Mr. Martin's bluegrass albums in attendance, as well as folks who have never heard any of his music, but enjoy his comedy and film career.

I half-expected Mr. Martin to do his best to play it straight. But what he and his partners delivered however, was a surprisingly rich evening filled with one-liners and witty stage banner that was tastefully woven through a set of virtuosic and traditionally-rooted bluegrass music.

Mr. Martin masterfully played to both ends of the spectrum, but with a keen focus on the music as his mission for the evening. As a fan of Mr. Martin's comedic and musical pursuits myself, it became very apparent to me that if there were people in the room that were unfamiliar with Martin's music, they were quickly won over by the irresistible lure of the rich traditional music played on stage.

The band kicked off the evening with an upbeat instrumental number called "Pitkon County Turnaround", which was later described by Mr. Martin as a tune based on a "Gated community that could have only been made by a supreme being". After a second speedy instrumental, Mr. Martin declared that "We only have thirty more songs to go and then we'll be half way done". Another comedic highlight was when Mr. Martin took his Mac Ipad off it's stand, calling it his "$800 set list". It was this kind of light-hearted banter that not just amused the crowd, but also bonded the wide variety of fans in attendance. 

Next, Woody Platt, guitarist for The Steep Canyon Rangers, sang a heartfelt vocal on "Daddy Played A Banjo" from the Grammy award-winning album The Crow. Mr. Martin then began to talk about how every love song has the uncanny ability to seemingly relate to somebody, somewhere, at sometime. He went on to describe a tune that he heard from a former lover called "Steve, You White Haired Bastard", which received a boisterous laugh from the crowd. The fast paced swing of "Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back" from Mr. Martin's new album, Rare Bird Alert followed. It was sung by Mr. Platt with mandolinist Mike Guggino.

The banjo-driven instrumental tune, "The Crow", rang out next and was followed by the bouncy and humorous call-and-response of "Jubilation Day", in which the entire band shared the center stage microphone. A new untitled tune about Paul Revere's famous ride, told through his horse's perspective was a hit with the audience.

Mr. Martin requested a beer from the group's "refrigerator", otherwise known as the the group's stand-up bass, which he was granted by player Charles Humphrey III, from a removable piece of the instrument's back side. He then gave the stage over to The Steep Canyon Rangers, who then had the opportunity to stretch out a bit without their leader. The group played two tunes themselves: their own "Cumberland Moon", from their Lovin' Pretty Women album and a quartet-style spiritual originally by Wade Mainer called "I Can't Sit Down". 

As soon as that tune ended, Mr. Martin bounced back on stage, distributing sheets of lyrics to his band. Then they all launched into "Atheists Don't Have No Songs", an amusing and funny quartet style "anti-spiritual". It was a comedic highlight of the evening (which can also be heard as a live version on Rare Bird Alert). Both songs garnered many claps, whistles, and roars and was a pitch-perfect balance of Mr. Martin's comedy chops and songwriting talents.

Mr. Martin took a solo turn with his banjo for the sweet instrumental ballad of "The Great Remember",  but was then joined by the outstanding fiddle player Nicky Sanders for the banjo-fiddle duet of "Hide Behind A Rock". Martin and Sanders kicked off "Wally On The Run" as their bandmates bounced on stage and enthusiastically joined in and raised the roof.

The gentle ballad "You" was next and was followed with the fisherman's nostalgic lament "Yellow-Backed Fly". The new instrumental breakdown of "Northern Island" stormed through, with the band easing it's pace into "Calico Train". The band left the stage and re-emerged in a blink. 

As the members of the band took their places, Mr. Martin declared that the way to wrap up the evening would be with two "train-inspired" songs. He quickly told the story of how his wife turned him onto a W.H. Auden poem, and he thought that it would make a great bluegrass tune. He called the Auden estate and was granted permission to set the poem to music. The band kicked off the two-song encore with the song and it got the floorboards bouncing. 

Next, was the breakneck rendition of "Orange Blossom Special" in which fiddler Nicky Sanders essentially stole the tune and ran off with it in his performance. His fiddle soared as he played and lightly sang "choo-choo", as his voice and fiddle became one instrument. The epic rendition of this tune was staggering and Sanders continued to relentlessly push his instrument through the tune and out beyond it as he threw in recognizable measures from popular songs that got the crowd hollering. 

Mr. Martin joked at one point in the evening that he has heard himself called "The Ambassador of Bluegrass". To me, if the title implies that as "ambassador", he is someone who can bring more people into the fold and lead more fans to enjoy bluegrass music, then I would have to enthusiastically agree. Spreading the word, building the community, and sharing the music is always welcome, and should be encouraged.

Mr. Martin's performance with The Steep Canyon Rangers was an evening of incredible music, that fans of bluegrass, as well as newcomers who may have came out for a laugh, surely found lots to enjoy. Mr. Martin and his band had the power to impress bluegrass traditionalists as well as excite casual fans and newcomers alike. He was a comfortable and confident performer, as well as a hospitable host.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review and photos. Cheers! (And nice blogger layout ... ha!)