Steve Martin (right) played bluegrass with Graham Sharp and the Steep Canyon Rangers on Thursday evening at the Midland Theatre. Photo by DAVID EULITT/The Star
Martin was quick to mock his status as a celebrity, checking e-mail, sending Tweets and playfully berating the five-piece Rangers between songs. While many of Martin’s songs had humorous themes, it was clear music was serious business to the star.
It didn’t take long for the Rangers to prove themselves as worth musical and comedic foils. Showcasing only Martin’s original material, the night opened with three instrumentals. For the bittersweet “Daddy Played Banjo,” Martin turned the mic over to the Rangers guitarist Woody Platt’s pleasant tenor voice. Later, “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” had a nice moment when the song dropped down to just Martin and Graham Sharp’s banjos before slowly building back up.
Knowing the evening was either an introduction to bluegrass or the first bluegrass show some had attended in a while, Martin took a few moments to explain the genre. Before the nostalgic “The Great Remember,” Martin demonstrated the difference between the Scruggs style of playing – fast-paced with three fingers wearing picks – and the claw hammer style, which is slower and played sans picks. After showing how the acoustic instruments can provide a natural percussion Martin lamented, “There’s a downside to traveling with no drummer – no pot.”
After leaving the stage to Google himself, Martin gave the Rangers two solo numbers. The first song, an instrumental, featured dramatic flourishes on Mike Guggino’s mandolin. The second was a gorgeous a capella version of the country gospel song “I Can’t Sit Down” that found all the Rangers singing into one mic together.
Not to be outdone, Martin returned a led the Rangers through his own a capella hymn “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” Martin gleefully punctuated lines about how atheists always have Sunday free and keep the “he” lowercase with enthusiastically off-pitch stanzas that punctured the carefully constructed harmonies.
The set ended with two new songs, “Me and Paul Revere,” a story about the famous ride from the horse’s point of view, and “Auden’s Train.” The latter was a showcase for Nicky Sanders’ absurd fiddle playing, in which he not only mimicked the sound of a locomotive, but played a lengthy solo that incorporated bits of “Norwegian Wood,” the “Hallelujah Chorus,” “William Tell Overture” and “Live and Let Die.”
Some of Martin’s best non-musical bits were good enough to stand alone. A sampling:
- “A lot of people say why a music career? Why now? And I say, hey, you guys are my band.”
- “The next song is a sing-along. It’s also an instrumental, so good luck.”
- “I think of my banjos as my children, which is to say one of them is probably not mine.”
- “I guess I’m doing two of my favorite things now – comedy and charging people to hear music.”
- “I hope you have enjoyed our music as much as I have enjoyed finger-synching to records offstage.”
- “If you’re not having fun tonight, you’re wrong.”
He was right.
| Joel Francis, Special to The Star