Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers with Edie Brickell, Botanic Gardens, 7/20/13
Watching Steve Martin riff on stage at the Denver Botanic Gardens' Chatfield, it was easy to see how he sold out stadiums with his stand-up comedy in the '70s. Martin came prepared with an arsenal of one-liners and sight gags, a well-honed routine that kicked off as soon as he introduced himself. But Martin's comedy was only a secondary attraction; it was an afterthought to the music, a two-hour performance that featured refined modern bluegrass from the Steep Canyon Rangers, inspired lyricism from guest Edie Brickell and some damned fine banjo picking from Martin himself.
The wind was starting to pick up when Martin appeared onstage with the Rangers a little after 7 p.m. Dressed smartly in a white jacket, a dress shirt, a tie and glasses, Martin cut a low-profile figure. Flanked by the quintet dressed in dark colors and toting a violin, stand-up bass, guitar and mandolin, Martin looked like a serious bandleader. But then he reached the microphone, and the schtick started in earnest. "I'm the one in the white coat," Martin declared, before wringing a few laughs out of the obvious: "We're going to start out our show by playing our first song."
It was hard to miss the traces of Martin's stand-up mastery from decades past. With that initial barrage of gags, the tone of the show ran a brief risk of a parody. But any doubts about the musicianship evaporated as soon as players from the Steep Canyon Rangers broke into their first three-part harmony.
Mandolinist Mike Guggino, guitarist Woody Platt and violinist Nicky Sanders broke out the stirring harmonies early, and their string work was flawless from the very first note. Along with backup from bassist Charles Humphrey III and banjo player and guitarist Graham Sharp, the ensemble showed a mastery for the roots of traditional bluegrass, even as they experimented with new sounds and strains.
The Rangers' seamless style was the musical canvas for Martin and his banjo picking. Alternating between clawhammer and Scruggs picking styles, Martin showed equal ease in instrumentals and vocal ballads. His eyes veered between his instrument and the audience members gathered at the front of the stage.
Between the gags and the routines, Martin displayed a style strongly informed by the masters of the early 20th century. Toward the end of the show, he spoke briefly about a childhood fondness for a Flatt and Scruggs album recorded at Carnegie Hall -- those roots showed in his performance on original tunes like "Daddy Played the Banjo," a tune he termed the Rangers' unofficial 'theme song.'
That brand of musical expertise came between a steady barrage of hilarious inanity from Martin. In introducing Woody Platt, Martin screwed up his face in disbelief and declared that his name was "a little too perfect; it's like you went online to the bluegrass name generator." Later, after a stage break, Martin returned and declared he'd found the guitarist's real ID and addressed him as Mr. Babaloo Torquemando.
A row of several banjos stood behind Martin, and at one point, he admitted he thinks of the instruments as his children, "which means probably one of them is not mine." At one point, Martin said he writes songs from personal experience, then proceeded to announce that inspiration was the reason his next tune would be called "I Think My Masseuse Is Too Chatty."
There were many, many more jokes, some of which came impromptu as the wind picked up force and the speaker racks began to sway back and forth. "I feel like we're performing on a ship at sea," Martin declared at one point. Still, all of the humor came in between jaw-dropping feats of picking, soloing and musical skill. That dynamic only intensified after Edie Brickell made her way onto the stage after the fourth tune.
With her silky tones and her confident delivery, Brickell added another dimension to the bluegrass focus of Martin and the Rangers. Singing tunes she'd written through collaborations with Martin, Brickell offered a poppier sensibility to the evening. During an eerie, minor-based ballad, Brickell declared solemnly, "The winds they blow/They blow me down," a fortuitous statement that brought cheers from the wind-whipped audience.
On a somber tunes set to ¾ time, Sanders took to the organ, Sharp picked up an electric guitar and a percussionist emerged to play on a simple drum kit. The result was a song that sounded more rock than bluegrass; Martin's banjo accompaniment was a stark departure from the traditional styling that marked the majority of the evening.
That range marked the entire two hours of the show, and so did Martin's knack for making a crowd laugh. With an iPad set up on a rack in front of him, Martin declared at one point that his next song would be "Angry Birds Level 7." Before kicking off the last tune, a song called "Auden's Train" that included lyrics by the poet W.H. Auden, Martin offered, "You can follow us on Twitter, or you can do something meaningful with your lives."
That gag led into one of the evening's most impressive displays, a furiously energetic round of solos from Sanders. The violinist went nuts over a simple E chord riff -- the head melody veered and shifted, he referenced the Beatles' 'Norwegian Wood," Rossini's "Barber of Seville," Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and even the theme from The Simpsons.
It was pop culture fused with serious musicianship in the most admirable and impressive sense. That combination summed up the overall appeal of the evening: Martin showed that he can still be silly, that he can still draw laughter through dry wit and sheer ridiculousness. At the same time, he showed off some serious musical chops, a talent that could fill stadiums on its own merit.
Personal Bias: Steve Martin has been a personal hero since I saw The Jerk at the tender age of seven. Seeing him live was comparable to seeing any idolized rock star..
Random Note: Toward the end of the show, Martin said he could use a beer. Stand-up bassist Charles Humphrey III (whom Martin called Charles Humphrey "ILL" at one point) flipped around his instrument, opened a compartment carved into the back of the bass and pulled out a bottle
By the Way: Chatfield Reservoir is a beautiful setting for a bluegrass show.
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