Actor/comedian/writer/wise guy Steve Martin unpacked his Grammy award-winning package of original banjo songs called The Crow Tuesday night to a nearly-sold-out Overture Hall. What The Crow delivers is proof that Martin is a certifiable banjo picking machine. More notably, it shows he's a songwriter who can create music with the boilerplate authenticity bluegrass hard-cores crave as well as melodies that stand on their own without the crutches of traditional reference.
"I've been waiting a long time to perform bluegrass on stage in Madison, Wis.," Martin said to last night's packed house. "This is as close as I'll come," he zinged, and then dove into the go-to-hell breakdown called "Pitkin County Turnaround."
The Steep Canyon Rangers, a furiously talented bluegrass quintet out of Asheville North Carolina, served as Martin's back-up band and comedic straight men. Martin knows his strengths. They don't include singing. With only a few exceptions, including the evening's encore, a bluegrass version of his SNL hit "King Tut," he left lead vocal work to guitarist Woody Platt with "a handle so perfect for this business that it sounds like it came from a bluegrass name generator," Martin said.
Platt's voice was built for gospel and was perfect for the hymn-like "Daddy Played the Banjo." In keeping with his "I'm lucky to be on stage with these guys" vibe, Martin praised mandolin player Mike Guggino for his solo during this one. "That was a great break you played on that one," he said, then paused. "Maybe a little too great. Maybe you could take a break from the break."
Church music also worked, late in the set, during "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," a tune that delivered equal part music and comedy: "Catholics dress up for mass / and listen to Gregorian chants. / Atheists just take a pass / Watch football in their underpants."
By bringing fans of his comedy to his banjo projects, Martin is boosting bluegrass popularity in 2010 the same way the Coen Brothers film Oh Brother Where Art Thou did a decade ago. He serves as bluegrass educator on stage, too, briefly telling how the clawhammer style of picking differs from the Scruggs 3-finger technique. He tends to drift in and out of both during the course of a single song, a practice that defines his technique and provides drama to his picking.
He played "Rare Bird" as a straight clawhammer song, an instrumental he said he wrote during "down time" on the set of a movie he worked on recently with Owen Wilson and Jack Black. On this one Martin took the traditional mountain construct and bent it with a bridge played entirely with harmonics.
A huge cattywompus broke out when Martin invited opening band the Punch Brothers to the stage to help with "The Crow." Here were 10 men in a joyful volley of show-off solos performing the best cut on the record. Immediately after the song Martin dismissed the Punch Brothers (led by bluegrass savant Chris Thile), patiently explaining that the next number involved "four chords."
Over the years Martin has disappeared into his many occupations, even as the five-string has remained fixed in both his personal and public persona. His banjo was a comic dodge in the 1970's. It was to Steve Martin's white-suited character what the thank you veddy much character was to Andy Kaufman's Elvis Presley: A bait and switch. Not anymore. Now, at the peak of Martin's career, the banjo is front and center. Surrounding it with power players like those in Steep Canyon, while dousing it in his own absurdist comedy, has allowed Martin to create an evening's entertainment with a unique one-two punch: wild and crazy.