Steve Martin banters through bluegrass in DuluthREVIEW: In the 1970s, Steve Martin was a comedian who used a banjo as a prop in his standup act. These days, he’s touring as a banjo player and has turned the comedy into stage banter.
By: Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
In the 1970s, Steve Martin was a comedian who used a banjo as a prop in his standup act. These days, he’s touring as a banjo player and has turned the comedy into stage banter.
Martin joined Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers to headline Sunday’s Bayfront Jam at Bayfront Festival Park. The 90-minute set mixed instrumentals, murder ballads, a fiddle-driven take on the poetry of W. H. Auden and fan fiction from the horse’s perspective in a song about Paul Revere’s ride.
And, of course, lots and lots of Martin’s hokey charm.
Each of these acts could draw on its own: The Steep Canyon Rangers play traditional bluegrass music with lovely layers of harmonization, and have won awards and topped bluegrass charts; Martin is Martin, and can simply shimmy and shuffle his feet and crack up a crowd.
Martin’s move to the bluegrass scene happened when he was introduced to the Steep Canyon Rangers at a party. He’s not just a token bright-lights, big-city name to attract a crowd. Martin plays well, writes music and chimed in with vocals on a few songs.
The North Carolina-based band includes Charles Humphrey, an upright bass player who allows Martin to store beer in the body of his instrument, mandolin and mandola player Mike Guggino, co-banjoist Graham Sharp, guitar player Woody Platt and fiddle player Nicky Sanders, whose wicked solo on “Auden’s Train” included train-whistle twists and snippets of classical interpretation.
They don’t always play together, but when they do there is no doubt that Martin is at the center of this band. He described his relationship with the Steep Canyon Rangers as:
“I do not think of them as my band. I’m their celebrity.”
The guys, decked out in suits and dress shirts, seem willing to play along as straight men to Martin’s antics. When Martin said he has an agreement with the band that “when this stops being fun, we quit,” the guys exited the stage on cue.
Martin responded by announcing the next song on the set list: “Angry Birds, Level 7.”
Martin started the performance by telling the audience he had played Duluth about 40 years ago and that he saw some familiar faces in the crowd. Sunday’s show drew more than 2,000 to the park, a mix of fans who referenced Martin’s stand-up career, the old arrow through the head trick, his banjo-as-comedy era — and a hipster who spent the first 15 minutes of the show yelling “Cheaper by the Dozen!,” a nod to the 2003 film Martin starred in.
This barely scratches the surface of Martin’s life in the arts. The longtime Hollywood figure is also an art collector, best-selling novelist, playwright, actor and heavy Twitter user.
Still, he acknowledged that “Steve Martin: Musician” might seem strange.
“I know the whole idea of this show is weird,” Martin said, comparing it to Jerry Seinfeld’s night of original music for a bassoon.
Martin’s right at home with the band, though, and a lot of the songs have a humorous twist, like “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” and “Jubilation Day,” which is about the joyful side of a breakup.
“If you’re not enjoying the show right now, you’re wrong,” Martin said midway through the concert, encouraging the crowd to “go home, look in the mirror and think, ‘What can I bring to the show next time as an audience member?’ ”
There will be no need to bother with that, as Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers received a standing ovation.
And next up for Martin: a bluegrass album with Edie Brickell.
Martin played WE Fest in Detroit Lakes, Minn., on Friday before playing Duluth. In the interim, the popular Twitter-user tweeted “Using tiny but powerful hotel hair dryer to jet me around room in St. Paul. Fun.”
Minneapolis-based blues rock band 4 on the Floor and the charming Twin Cities-based front porch-style bluegrass band Pert Near Sandstone opened the show.