REVIEW: Steve Martin bluegrass hits the right tone

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers entertained the crowd at the Jubilee Auditorium on Sunday night.

Too much stage banter can ruin a perfectly good concert. That is, of course, unless it’s Steve Martin doing the bantering: then, corny jokes become the star attraction, and Martin doled out plenty at the Jubilee Auditorium Sunday night. For example, “I’m the one in the white pants, and I will be all night – unless something goes horribly wrong.” Gold.

The actor and comedian has been a longtime bluegrass booster and banjo player, and it was this somewhat obscure passion that had him fingerpicking up a storm in front of a full house alongside the Steep Canyon Rangers. The band isn’t really his band, of course: it existed before Martin and exists without him, too. As Martin said, he’s just their celebrity.

But while his music career is undoubtedly fueled by his star power, Martin still pulls together the right balance of comedy, sincerity, and musicianship to make his concerts an altogether satisfactory experience, whether you’re there for the songs or for the jokes. His banjo chops are formidable, sure, but the show wasn’t quite flawless when you get down to the little intricacies such as timing. Instead, it’s the whole package that counts. Martin showcased the band and its ultra-talented members extremely well, particularly the fiddle player and mandolin player. The songs themselves were Martin’s, and included “Daddy Played the Banjo,” “The Crow,” and – as predicted by Gig City’s Mike Ross in his preview – a capella number “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”

Martin knows enough to let the others do most of the singing, occasionally exaggerating his modest ability to the delight of the crowd. Comic relief came from elsewhere, too: scripted interactions between Martin and the band members, snippets of stand-up, and even prop comedy, when the bass player opened secret panel in the back of his double bass to reveal a beer, which he then handed to Martin. And the lyrics, obviously, were funny: : “Jubilation Day” described the joy of finally being free of certain relationships, while “Pretty Little One,” Martin’s take on a murder ballad, ended in a fun twist.

Both Martin and the band took turns alone on stage, and truth be told, the Steep Canyon Rangers’ solo offering might have been the best of the night: the crowd showered them with applause four times during the song, not to mention after. Martin, for his part, was also cheered on when he hit the stage alone, the rest of the band reemerging one by one. And he seemed to know his audience as entry-level bluegrass fans, explaining such details as the clawhammer technique and how his tuner worked. There was, of course, an encore, replete with fiddle jokes that drove the crowd wild. Martin was right when he quipped, “If you’re not enjoying the show so far, you’re wrong.”