After a few opening songs provided by local singer-songwriter Sarah Sample, Martin came out firing. “When I got into town, I saw a billboard with my face on it that said, ‘Sold Out,’... and I thought to myself, ‘How rude!’” (Note: all quotes are approximate.) He was joined by the five members of the Rangers, who were all dressed in black or grey suits; however, Martin stood out: “Hi, I’m Steve. I’m the one in the white pants. I’ll be up here in the white pants all night ... unless something goes horribly wrong.”
But everything went terrifically right. When you see Martin in concert, it is the best of both worlds: high-caliber musicianship from the band (and Martin, although his self-deprecating humor, also reinforced by the Rangers, pointed otherwise) and a comedy show. It was obvious that some of the jokes, like in a stand-up act, were tried and true, while the legendary actor/comedian also showed off his ability to ad lib and improve.
Martin cued up three instrumentals to begin the set. The second was “a relaxed banjo song,” because Martin wanted to show the crowd that not all banjo songs are fast. He asked the crowd to “imagine yourselves outdoors on a cool, summer night ... which shouldn’t be hard.” The third tune moved the pace onward and upward, which was met by one lone dancer -- a five-year-old boy in a red shirt up front. For the most part, the older crowd treated Martin and the show with respect -- there was an eery stillness unbecoming of most Red Butte shows -- and stayed seated until the encore.
“I try to prove to everyone that I’m not just another dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train. But people still ask me, ‘Why now? Why all of a sudden [approximately five years ago] do you want to start making bluegrass?’ And to them, I say, ‘But you guys are my band!’” Martin joked in between songs.
He then cued the band up for “Daddy Played the Banjo,” which he wrote with Gary Scruggs -- whose father, Earl Scruggs, the legendary banjo player, passed away earlier this year -- from Martin’s 2009 solo release The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, which featured collaborations with bluegrass and country music’s finest. “Daddy Played the Banjo” was sung by the velvet-voiced lead singer of the Rangers, Woody Platt.
Before he started up on a new tune, Martin said, “We’re not going to just play the hits...We don’t have any, we’re a bluegrass band.” However, I’d disagree. Cuts from Martin’s latest Rare Bird Alert, like “Jubilation Day” (the first time Martin sang during the set) and “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” are just plain bluegrass/comedy gold. Martin also took a backseat and let the Steep Canyon Rangers play two tunes (in between the aforementioned songs), so he could drink a beer -- Martin earlier joked that the stand-up bass was the band’s refrigerator and, sure enough, he pulled out a brew from it -- utilizing props even during a bluegrass set. And the encore, Martin’s ode to poet W.H. Auden, “Auden’s Train,” is also worth repeated listens.
To sum up the evening, Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers lived up to their title of 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards' Entertainer of the Year. And Martin even brought up the title: “If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re wrong. We were awarded Entertainers of the Year,” he said, tongue in cheek. “So, if you didn’t have a good time, you can go home and ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to the show next time?”