in performance: steve martin and the steep canyon rangers

steve martin and the steep canyon rangers: charles humphrey III, mike guggino, steve martin, woody platt, nicky sanders and graham sharp. photo by sandee o.

steve martin and the steep canyon rangers: charles humphrey III, mike guggino, steve martin, woody platt, nicky sanders and graham sharp. photo by sandee o.

“It’s been a longtime dream of mine to play bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky,” proclaimed Steve Martin over the opening ovation of a sold out Opera House audience last night. “Tonight, I am one step closer to doing that.”

Comparing his credentials at presenting a professional bluegrass performance as something akin to “Jerry Seinfeld playing an evening of bassoon music,” Martin had little problem in putting his string music smarts into motion.

On the show-opening Pitkin County Turnaround, the popular film celebrity, comic and longtime banjo enthusiast offered a typically giddy bluegrass breakdown with a few tasty West Coast accents in the tune’s modesty progressive sounding melody and banjo turns that were sharp, clean and confident. But it was the support of the youthful North Carolina bluegrass unit, the Steep Canyon Rangers, that fully fortified the tune and the performance.

Initially, the concert seemed to tilt in favor of a Martin stand-up show. No, he wasn’t the “wild and crazy guy” of yore. His humor has matured and, perhaps, hardened a bit. One such instance came when he poked fun at part of the very musical fanbase he was playing to. In introducing Daddy Played the Banjo, which sounded like a cross between Gordon Lightfoot and ‘70s-era Earl Scruggs, Martin recalled being inspired enough by a book of centuries old “bad poetry” to take a crack at composing some tepid prose of his own . “It was some pretty bad poetry, but I thought it might make a pretty good country song.”

But by the time Martin dug into the darting, fanciful title tune from his 2008 album The Crow with the Rangers, the music and the humor found a more easy going balance.

Rangers Woody Platt, Mike Guggino and Graham Sharp provided effortless vocal grace to You while the addition of Nicky Sanders for the acapella gospel piece I Can’t Sit Down solidified the group’s stirring vocal blend.

“Now when you guys learn to play your instruments with that, it will really sound fantastic,” Martin remarked.

From the more broadly comedic camp came the hysterical Athiests Don’t Have No Songs, a modern day spiritual penned by Martin, Platt and Sharp for the non-believers. “Catholics dress up for mass and listen to Gregorian chants,” sang the ensemble with ample solemnity. “Athiests just take a pass and watch football in their underpants.”

And then there were the moments when the music spoke for itself without the yucks in voices both modest and monstrous.

For all the humor he steeped this nearly two-hour performance in, Martin never looked more content last night than he did sitting alone onstage playing the light, lovely clawhammer-style instrumental The Great Remember.

The beast of the band, though, was fiddler Sanders. In a encore segment, he managed to breathe new fire, invention and drama into the warhorse Orange Blossom Special (the evening’s only offering not written or co-written by Martin) by cramming bits of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Beethoven into his delightfully ferocious soloing.

Wrapping it all up was – what else? – a bluegrass revision of Martin’s 1978 hit, King Tut. By this point, Martin had pretty much checked out for the night. Revisiting such a specific and popular point of his comic past came across as a largely conciliatory move. But the Rangers appeared to be having the times of their lives singing the song’s neo-disco chorus.

And at the end of the night, such a cross-purposes moment seemed perfectly fine. Martin all but admitted as much earlier in the evening.

“The Rangers aren’t my band. I am their celebrity.”

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