Wine-glass holders, plush blankets and polite small talk abounded as the sold-out crowd waited for Steve Martin and his bluegrass quintet The Steep Canyon Rangers to grace the stage at Deer Valley on Friday night. The atmosphere was too tranquil to provide an apt stomping ground for a rowdy bluegrass hoedown, but when the Utah Symphony serves as the opening act, the tempered air is a given.
Finally, Martin made his entrance and declared that tonight he was “one step closer to my longtime dream of playing bluegrass in Park City, Utah.”
Steve greeted the crowd and delivered a few quick punch lines (the show was almost equal parts music and comedy) then delved into the first song. His banjo lines rang with crisp clarity, while the performer smiled effortlessly. The second song was a “sing-along instrumental” best enjoyed while imagining drifting down a river in a "very scary part of Kentucky." The tune revved its tempo midway through and had audience members clapping along with the rhythm. The authentic composition didn’t transport to rural Appalachia, though, considering its backing by the Utah Symphony Orchestra, whose addition to the set proved to be a seamless and satisfying collaboration.Even after a rousing display of his banjo chops, Martin assured the crowd that he’s not “just another Hollywood debutante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” If it weren’t for the comedian’s self-deprecating humor, the musical validity of the performers would never have been called into question.
Around halfway through their set, vocalist Edie Brickell joined the band onstage. Brickell’s addition is powerful, filling out the group’s vocal chemistry as she blends her harmonies sublimely with the Rangers’. Her lyrics are honest and her delivery confident. Brickell left the stage before the group preformed the single-mic a cappella “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs,” which elicited the most roaring laughter of the night.
The performance was excellent and the temperature was near perfect but still, something was missing from the concert experience. The Deer Valley Music Festival, which primarily accommodates classical and symphonic acts, couldn’t help but stifle some of the inherent rowdiness of the bluegrass genre. With the entire area in front of the stage roped off to allow the seated VIPs an unobstructed view, the liveliest members of the audience were relegated to a penned-in square to the right of the stage. The crowd cheered and applauded at all the right places, but I couldn’t help imagining this band bringing the house down in a more youthful setting. Still, the final song, a driving road ballad that featured fevered fiddle playing by Nicky Sanders, left a buzz of excitement in the air that lasted through the encore and drive back down the mountain.