Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers Ride Into D.C.

Juli Thanki | October 13th, 2009

Steve Martin may just be one of the most talented men in America; not only is he an accomplished comedian/actor/playwright, he’s also an excellent musician, having played banjo for 40-plus years. What’s next? A banjo tour, of course. Martin was nothing if not optimistic about this venture, remarking “if everything goes to plan, I’ll only lose $12,000!” A few shows on the tour have been canceled, allegedly due to low ticket sales, but D.C. is a bluegrass town at heart so it was no surprise that the show was sold out–though the venue had been changed from the Kennedy Center to the slightly smaller Warner Theatre.

Clad in white jacket, tie and glasses, Martin walked onstage and immediately launched into “Hoedown at Alice’s,” backed by bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers. Met with thunderous applause at song’s end, Martin responded “Save it; we’ve got 37 songs to go.” He was overestimating by about 20 songs, but the nearly 90-minute set was still captivating, to say the least.

Equally entertaining was the way Martin introduced each song, including “This is a singalong…it has no lyrics, so good luck” before “Words Unspoken” and “This is a song—well, that pretty much says it.” Perhaps his best line of the night was when he talked about songwriting, and how it was important for a person to write what he knows: “So this next one is called ‘I Think My Masseuse Is Too Chatty.'” He may have joked around between songs, but when it came time to pick, Martin was all business. He played most of the songs from The Crow, as well as a new comedic breakup song, “Jubilation Day,” effortlessly alternating between Scruggs-style and clawhammer.

Effusive in his praise for SCR (and their apparent love of “ranging steep canyons” when not performing, not to mention their role as Martin’s straight men), Martin exited the stage to let the band perform by themselves–but not before a bit of comedy: Steve mentioned he liked touring with bassist Charles R. Humphrey III because his bass doubles as a refrigerator. Humphrey then spun the instrument around, popped off the back, and pulled out a beer, which Martin gladly took as he strolled offstage.

Left to their own immensely talented devices, the Steep Canyon Rangers played a trio of songs, including “There Ain’t No Easy Street” from excellent new album Deep in the Shade and “Call the Captain” from Lovin’ Pretty Women. Though banjo player Graham Sharp was superb playing alongside Martin, it was really nice to hear him showcase his own considerable five-string skills. Their all too brief solo set ended with stunning four-part harmonies on a cappella gospel song “I Can’t Sit Down.” This North Carolina quintet is the real deal, and anyone with even a passing interest in bluegrass owes it to him or herself to check them out should they roll through your town.

On The Crow, Steve Martin employed an A-list roster of guests to cover the vocals, including Tim O’Brien, Vince Gill, and Dolly Parton. None of those singers were on tour with Martin, but SCR guitarist/lead vocalist Woody Platt was a more than capable substitute; his rich, smooth voice won over quite a few spectators, if the line at the merch stand following the show was any indication. Platt was joined by fellow North Carolinian Shannon Whitworth for the tender duet “Pretty Flowers,” and then closed the set with “Calico Train,” a song Martin introduced as his take on Bill Monroe’s “Sitting on Top of the World.”

The first encore gave fiddler Nicky Sanders a chance to shine with “Orange Blossom Special.” The Steep Canyon Rangers and Martin traded lyrics, changing a few to fit the town: “I’ll ride that Orange Blossom Special/And lose these D.C. blues.” One more standing ovation later, the gang returned for another song, singing a bluegrass version of “King Tut” to the sheer delight of the audience.

“D.C. blues?” Not very likely after an evening like that.

  1. Rick
    October 13, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Wow, a bluegrass version of “King Tut”? I hope someone recorded that on video for YouTube!

    The Steep Canyon Rangers always put on a great show when they are on the Opry. Typically on any given Opry show there are only a couple of artists I really want to hear, and the Rangers definitely fall into that select group (along with fellow bluegrassers The Steeldrivers, Dailey and Vincent, and 3 Fox Drive). Sounds like it was a fun show.

  2. Stormy
    October 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Also, Steve Martin stepped up and funded my old high school’s producion of his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile when the stupid administration kicked it off campus.

    (For those wondering, Cahill has been a trusted but contraversial teacher since I was there 1991-1993, the 137 people on the petition are from a town of 11,500 people and “nearby Eastern Oregon University” is literally 4 blocks from the high school).

  3. Jon
    October 13, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    I don’t know whether it’s just a function of the intervening months, but his playing seemed considerably stronger with the SCR on the IBMA Awards Show than it did on the album.

  4. Waynoe
    October 14, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Although his star power will leapfrog him to play in venues that others would otherwise not be privileged, he is a good player with a good group and this could really turn additional folks on to this kind of music. He has been a serious musician for some time and I see nothing but positive things from his involvement.

    The article said some shows were canceled due to low ticket sales. That may have to do with location and the fact the bluegrass draws a smaller audience.

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