Most people know Steve Martin for the “Wild and Crazy Guy” image that helped make him a household name in comedy. Whether you are familiar with his stand-up comedy career (which he left 30 years ago), his movie career (that has included hits including ‘The Jerk’, ‘The Three Amigos’ and ‘Father of the Bride’), or his numerous television appearance on Saturday Night Live (or most recently, 30 Rock) you likely have an instant association of Steve Martin and comedy. Well, it turns out there is another side to Steve Martin. Steve Martin the musician.
Steve Martin is a banjo player. Martin originally picked up the banjo about 45 years ago just to add another talent to his one-man show and stand-up routine. Over time he added original banjo songs. His comedic career took off, but he never stopped playing the banjo. In 2001, he played with Earl Scruggs on the tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” for the album Earl Scruggs and Friends, which won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. In January of this year Martin released his first solo banjo album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. The album has 15 bluegrass style songs, 14 of which are originals written by Martin.
On October 27th, I had the opportunity to see Steve Martin perform live in Dallas, Texas at a benefit concert. Not really knowing what to expect, I would not have been surprised to see Martin return to full stand-up persona or an entirely serious bluegrass concert. What occurred was a great mixture of both; a bluegrass concert and a standup routine, as Martin quipped and riffed between every song. Martin set the tone for the evening when he came out and played an original tune and when finished told the audience, “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to play in this beautiful hall. Today, I feel like I am one step closer to that goal.”
If you think Martin is an actor that just decided to become an amateur bluegrass musician you couldn’t be further from the truth. Martin’s appreciation for and mastery of the banjo is deeper than anyone but the most devoted fan might anticipate. Martin’s skills on the banjo look effortless and the songs he wrote were very well done and enjoyable. I myself am not a big bluegrass fan, but found that I very much enjoyed all of the songs that he played that evening. They were well-organized and varied on tempo and theme (that is, they didn’t all sound alike). Martin also seemed well-aware of his vocal limitations as was demonstrated by the fact that another member of his band performed vocals on a majority of the few songs that had lyrics. Although, Martin did take lead vocals on some of his more novelty songs like ‘Late for School’ and ‘Jubilation Day.’
Martin also had the luxury of being able to select one of the best Bluegrass bands around, The Steep Canyon Rangers, to back him up. The Steep Canyon Rangers were recently named Emerging Artist of the Year, and deservingly so. The skilled quartet of mandolin, fiddle, bass, guitar, and banjo made the music sound richer and added credibility to the bluegrass music being used and it never just seemed like some celebrity running through his list of songs. He is clever enough to surround himself with musicians who were, as far as I can tell, five of the greatest working bluegrass musicians around today. Everybody on stage seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves in the performances.
Some of the jokes were pretty good too. Martin talked about his unreleased protest song “Let’s Keep the Minimum Wage Right Where She’s At” as well as the song named by his wife “Is That The Only Tune You Know How To Play?” It was a perfect fusion of comedy and music. There were a couple songs with elements of sadness and melancholy, or “like the look on my agent’s face when I told him I wanted to do a banjo tour” as Martin described it.
Towards the end, Martin talked about the success of benefit concert stating, “This year, Central Dallas Ministries had their best net income ever… until they paid my fee.” This met great laughs and then Martin brought down the house with his encore performance of “King Tut” which was a big hit for Martin in 1978 and a fan favorite.
Overall the concert was a large success. Martin managed to show off his musical abilities while showing that he still has the comedic chops that he used to display. For people that might see this for the bluegrass music, you will not be disappointed. Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers are a great live band with considerable skill. If you are a fan of Steve Martin as a comedian there was certainly enough comedy to keep you entertained, but there is a lot of bluegrass music. The music aspect of the show was a larger focus than the comedy. However, if you are absolutely not a fan of bluegrass/country style music and don’t like to listen to it at all than this is probably not the concert for you. If you have any tolerance for it, you will likely still have a good time. About 70% of the concert time emphasized the music and 30% was high quality comedy from a pro.
Below is the set list for the show
1. Hoedown At Alice’s
2. Freddie’s Lilt
3. The Crow
4. Daddy Played the Banjo
5. Pitkin County Turnaround
6. Late for School
7. Nowhere to Lay Low (Steep Canyon Rangers only)
8. Be Still Moses (The Steep Canyon Rangers only)
9. Jubilation Day
10. Clawhammer Medley
11. Hide Behind A Rock
12. Words Unspoken
13. Saga of the Old West
14. Tin Roof
15. Calico Train
16. Orange Blossom Special (Encore)
17. King Tut (Final encore)
I would rate the music was a 9 out of 10.
I would give the concert an overall 10 out of 10.
For those that hate bluegrass it would probably still be a 7 out of 10.
Review By: Jacob C.