Its hard to tell if Thursday nights performance by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers was a comedy show hijacked by bluegrass music or the other way around. Either way, it was a success.
By JOEL FRANCIS
Special to The Star
The 100-minute show in front of a sold-out Midland theater was a convergence of two of Martins passions. The banter between songs was full of the one-liners and comic sensibilities that have made Martin a movie star and inspiration to comedians since the 1970s. It also showcased the Martins banjo prowess, an instrument he picked up at 17.
Martin was quick to mock his celebrity status. Then he checked e-mail, sent tweets and playfully berated the five-piece Rangers between songs. While many of Martins songs had humorous themes, it was clear music was serious business.
It didnt take long for the Rangers to prove themselves worthy musical and comedic foils. Showcasing Martins original material, the night opened with three instrumentals. For the bittersweet Daddy Played Banjo, Martin turned the mic over to Rangers guitarist Woody Platts pleasant tenor.
Later, Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back had a nice moment when the performance dropped to just Martin and Graham Sharp on banjos before rebuilding.
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 Earl 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, Theres a downside to traveling with no drummer no pot.
Martin gave the Rangers two solo numbers. The first song, an instrumental, featured dramatic flourishes on Mike Gugginos mandolin. The second was a gorgeous a capella version of the gospel song I Cant Sit Down that had all the Rangers singing into one mic.
Not to be outdone, Martin returned and led the Rangers through his own a capella hymn, Atheists Dont Have no Songs. Martin gleefully punctuated lines about atheists always having Sunday free and keeping he lowercase. His enthusiastically off-pitch stanzas punctured the songs carefully constructed harmonies.
The set ended with two new songs, Me and Paul Revere, a story about the famous ride from the horses point of view, and Audens 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 Martins best non-musical bits were good enough to stand alone. A sampling:
The next song is a sing-along. Its 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 Im doing two of my favorite things now comedy and charging people to hear music.
If youre not having fun tonight, youre wrong.
He was right.