LIVE: Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers @ the Palace Theatre, 6/20/14

Review by Greg Haymes

There aren’t many – any? – banjo players who can demand a top concert ticket price of $80. But then again, if you shelled out the big bucks at the Palace Theatre recently, you probably weren’t paying so much just to see a banjo player. You were laying out the cash to see Steve Martin, who happened to also play the banjo…

Not that Martin isn’t a good banjo player. He is, and he proved it five years ago when he first came to town with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. And the difference this time around was not some new-found banjo skills, but rather the integration of Martin’s comic chops into his bluegrass performance. His off-beat stand-up comedy served as delightful between-tune patter – even adding some sketch-comedy schtick with members of the Rangers – giving the crowd more of what they wanted from the formerly wild-and-crazy guy.

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He also brought along Edie Brickell (best known as the front-person with the ’80s alt-rock/jam-band the New Bohemians or for her more recent dust-up with husband Paul Simon), who was a beguiling vocalist on such snappy tunes as the yearning “When You Get to Ashville,” “Yes She Did” (an upbeat little ditty about suicide) and the tender title track of the collaborative Martin/Brickell album, “Love Has Come For You.”

The collaboration has certainly paid off, not only with their recent Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song, but also with their upcoming stage musical “Bright Star,” currently slated to debut in San Diego in September. And at the Palace, the songs they wrote together were the highlights of the night.

Martin is not much of a vocalist (and he knows it), but he deftly wove his comedy into song with “Jubilation Day” (the happiest break-up/kiss-off song you’re likely to ever hear), the pseudo-gospel (anti-gospel?) a cappella number, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” and his best vocal performance of the night, “Pretty Little One,” a classic murder ballad with a twist in which the wanna-be murderer ends up as the murderee.

Banjo-wise, Martin certainly knows his way around the Earl Scruggs-style three-finger bluegrass picking – as he proved with his dazzling duet with the Rangers’ banjoman Graham Sharp – he primarily focused on clawhammer banjo style for most of the night.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was the Rangers – and especially their fiddler Nicky Sanders – who stole the show at the end of the night with some flashy, crowd-pleasing fiddle pyrotechnics on the show-closing “Auden’s Train,” which somehow mashed-up W.H. Auden’s poetry with hot-wired “Orange Blossom Special”-like virtuosity – definitely a first in the world of bluegrass.

SECOND OPINIONS:
Alexander M. Stern’s review at Metroland
Excerpt from Kirsten Fergeson’s review at The Daily Gazette: “At the start, Martin came onstage in a blue blazer, bobbing up and down with a comedian’s nervous energy before launching into an opening comedy riff. “The best way to listen to bluegrass is to close your eyes and imagine you’re in a rowboat … in a scary part of Kentucky,” he joked. Much of the show that followed had a bit of a vaudeville feel — at least in how the focus on stage shifted from performer to performer, while the mood swung from silly to serious. The sharply dressed Steep Canyon Rangers joined Martin onstage for ‘Jubilation Day,’ a funny Martin-sung tune about the joy of breaking away from a rotten relationship. Rangers lead singer Woody Platt took the lead on the straight-faced ‘Daddy Played the Banjo,’ while Martin and fellow banjoist Graham Sharp matched notes on ‘The Crow.’”

NOTE: Minus the Steve and Edie portion of the show, the Steep Canyon Rangers will be returning to Nippertown to play the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival at the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill on Thursday (July 17).

STEVE MARTIN SET LIST
??? (instrumental)
Jubilation Day
Daddy Played the Banjo
The Crow (instrumental)
Get Along Stray Dog
When You Get to Ashville
Yes She Did
Love Has Come for You
??? (instrumental, Steep Canyon Rangers only)
As I Go (Steep Canyon Rangers only)
Atheists Don’t Have No Songs
Gentleman Pete (Martin solo)
Sun’s Gonna Shine
Stand and Deliver (Steep Canyon Rangers only)
Sarah Jane & the Iron Mountain Baby
Pretty Little One
Auden’s Train
ENCORES
The Dance at the Wedding
Remember Me This Way

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