Steve Martin is no longer a wild and crazy guy per se, but his concert at Red Butte Garden Wednesday was a deft blend of humor and bluegrass music.
Who knows how many people at the sold-out gig knew that Martin won this year's Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for The Crow: New Songs for Five-String Banjo, but even if they were surprised by the serious musicianship coming from the stage, they surely weren't shocked that Martin was a charming and often hilarious frontman as he chatted up the crowd between songs.
Leading a band made up of North Carolina bluegrass crew The Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin picked and grinned through the majority of The Crow and a slew of new songs he plans on recording next year, displaying a talent on the banjo only hinted at in past comedy bits when he used the instrument. And as part of a complete band featuring stand-up bass, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and a second banjo, Martin settled right in alongside the professional musicians backing him up on songs like the winning opener, "Pitkin County Turnaround" and "Daddy Played The Banjo," a song he described as "some bad poetry, but a pretty good country song."
The between-song jokes, delivered either as planned bits (like when the bass player pulled a beer out of his instrument to give to Martin) or impromptu asides, were certainly better than the average concert, thanks to Martin's long history as a standup comic. From the minute he took the stage, Martin was cracking wise: "What a bunch of cowards you are," Martin mock-sneered at the sight of the layered and umbrella'd audience braving the wind and rain, "with your umbrellas and your raincoats."
Martin introdued the show-opening "Pitkin County Turnaround," by saying, "This song Rolling Stone magazine called a 'worthwhile illegal download.'" Martin also is the first musician I've seen to use an iPad for his set-list. As Martin noted, "When you use a $600 setlist, it makes the act too big to fail. We now can get a government bailout."
At one point Martin acknowledged that for some, seeing him play bluegrass was like going to see Jerry Seinfeld do an evening of original songs for the bassoon, but Martin was too self-deprecating. He and The Steep Canyon Rangers offered legitimately stellar takes on classics like "Orange Blossom Special" and "Late for School," and were particularly inspired on their own material, including "More Bad Weather On The Way," "Calico Train," "Wally On The Run" and "Rare Bird Alert." One of the best songs of the night was an a cappella gag tune called "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," with the chorus repeatedly emphasizing that, in atheist songs, "the he is always lowercase."
For those brave enough to stick out the crappy cold weather through Martin's encore, a familiar tune awaited. Martin's only nod to his past life of a full-time comic was the show-closing bluegrass version of "King Tut," which got the crowd to its feet and doing the famous "Egyptian walk." A fittingly funny and fun end to a surprisingly strong musical revue.