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No joke, Steve Martin can play bluegrass

Citi Center, Boston, October 7, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Steve Martin's tour is not being billed a comedy show. Instead, he's pushing his first bluegrass disc ever, "The Crow," touring with young bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers as his backing band.

While the emphasis is squarely on the music, Martin also was one helluva funny guy. And with music and comedy smartly intertwined, this made for a fine evening from a singer serious about his music.

Martin said he has played banjo for decades. Growing up in California, he bought a banjo and has been playing it ever since. He reminded the audience that he played it while a huge huge comedy star in the 1970's as well. He also wrote almost half the songs for his CD in previous decades.

The evening started with humorous writer Dave Barry talking about the origins of the banjo in Egypt before bringing Martin on stage for a sit-down interview. It was hard to tell if it was all staged or not. They had a good back-and-forth banter mainly, sometimes serious (talking about recording with Vince Gill and Dolly Parton), sometimes not so much before breaking into Clawhammer Medley playing solo.

With that, it was time to bring up the Rangers. The band has put out quality music on their own, and this provided them with the chance to strut their stuff before a much bigger audience than usual. They were easily up to the task with lots of excellent fiddle playing throughout from Nicky Sanders along with Charles Humphrey III on upright bass, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Graham Sharp doubling on banjo and Woody Platt on vocals. Platt always has possessed a strong voice, and Martin certainly knew his vocal limitations.

He took turns on lead vocals on Late for School and Jubilation Day, and well, his skills lie elsewhere as he acknowledged. "I know my limits," he said. "I can sing a funny song. I'm going to sing it (he said of the latter song). When we record it, we'll get someone really good."

While Martin could joke around before or after a song with his comments (in introducing Saga of the Old West, Martin described it as having elements of sadness and melancholy "like the look on my agent's face when I told him I wanted to do a banjo tour"), he tended to play it straight when playing the music (okay, he did jokingly sing the words "King Tut" during his vocal turns on the encore song Orange Blossom Special). He and Sharp launched double banjo attacks throughout the night - and Martin plays with skill - with highlights including Daddy Played the Banjo, a song he wrote with Gary Scruggs, and Calico Train.

The Rangers, who just released a very strong "Deep in the Shade" yesterday, got the chance to play a few songs while Martin took a breather. Fortunately, they're very good at what they do. Unfortunately, the amount of time out front wasn't enough. (For Boston-area fans, they'll return in April 2010 at a Boston Bluegrass Union gig).

Almost every song played by Martin was penned by him. He is a very good songwriter. The unrecorded song of the night, Ignition, was a sharp instrumental.

About the lone negative was that it just wasn't long enough at about 75 minutes. True, Martin only has one release to play behind, though he did add unrecorded material.

Guess that means that Martin ought to do more recording and hit the trail again with the Rangers. No joke.