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No matter how you label Steep Canyon Rangers, they're all good

Brighton Music Hall, Boston, October 11, 2015

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Steep Canyon Rangers may have long forged a career on their own, but they're probably inextricably linked with banjo man (and comedian and all around renaissance man in his spare time) Steve Martin. SCR has served as Martin's backing band on tour and also recorded with Martin and Edie Brickell.

But as if to reinforce that this is a band in its own right, Steep Canyon Rangers was on its lonesome during a most ingratiating, fun set of jam-powered bluegrass.

With their ninth studio album, the Jerry Douglas-produced "Radio," just out, that proved to be the focus, at least early on. In fact, the first six songs were all from "Radio," starting with the title track.

Woody Platt always has been a more than serviceable lead singer - a presence, but not hogging the spotlight. The Rangers are a case where the sum is greater than the parts.

That's not all that hard to achieve when you have stellar musicianship in the form of Graham Sharp on banjo, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Charles R. Humphrey III on upright bass, relatively recent addition Mike Ashworth on cajon and a drum box kit and Nicky Sanders on fiddle.

Sanders was simply a tour de force time and again, seemingly getting more expressive and uninhibited as the night wore on. In fact, by the end, Sanders pretty much was a whirling dervish, playing to the crowd, but also helping solidify the songs. He hopped, bounced and darted about the stage, even tapping a cymbal with his bow.

The North Carolina band broke into jamgrass territory time and again with most songs stretching on for many minutes. Most of the attention focused on Sharp, who also took lead vocals, Guggino and Sanders. They expanded the songs, straying from the heart of the song, but not so much so that the original song became unrecognizable or the show became repetitious.

Far from it. One of the most pleasing moments of the night was when the band gathered around Ashworth during the closing "Monumental Fool."

Bluegrass purists may not particularly welcome SCR into the bluegrass realm. When you have a member playing cajon (basically a wooden box that serves as a drum), even though on the softer side, no matter. For some, that just isn't bluegrass.

But whatever you want to label Steep Canyon Rangers, no matter. They're all good.

Local bluegrass band Mile twelve preceded the headliners with a very satisfying set of originals and covers (including George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care"). The quartet - Catherine Bowness from New Zeland on banjo, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle, Nate Sabat on upright bass and Evan Murphy on acoustic guitar and vocals - showed a lot of musical chops.