"Ladies and gentlemen, all my life I've dreamed of playing Charleston, South Carolina. Tonight, I'm one step closer to that goal."
That's how Steve Martin began the show this past Monday night at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center as he fronted what was billed as "an evening of music and comedy" with the North Carolina bluegrass group Steep Canyon Rangers and special guest Edie Brickell. I was always a little bummed out that I never got to see Martin do his stand-up act in the 1970s. Of course I've owned the comedy albums for years, and have watched Martin's early appearances on Saturday Night Live in that same decade. Wearing that trademark white suit and sporting some wacky stage prop, like the ever-popular arrow through the head, Martin basically deconstructed the traditional stand-up comedy act and in the process became a comedy icon. The banjo was always included in his act, but I guess I never really realized just how good Martin was on the instrument until a few years back when he released The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo. That album featured Martin playing with the likes of Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, and Bela Fleck. Unlike his previous musical hit, the novelty song "King Tut" from 1978 (video here), this was a serious release and showed how talented Martin was on the notoriously hard to play banjo. Not long after, Martin was introduced to Steep Canyon Rangers after the band performed at a party in North Carolina.
Martin explained how he and the band met after the first song at Monday night's show, but then added in typical Steve Martin style, "That version of the story didn't go over so well in Hollywood, so I tell everyone we met in rehab."
While I'll never get to see Steve Martin in his "Wild and Crazy Guy" persona, the Memorial Day show allowed me to mix two of my favorite things; cerebral comedy and bluegrass music. One might not think that the two would mix, but if so, you just haven't seen Martin perform in a musical concert setting. In between wisecracks that had the sold-out crowd in stitches ("I don't like to think of Steep Canyon Rangers as my band. Instead, I think of myself as their celebrity."), Martin and the Rangers turned in some quality folk and bluegrass music. Rangers lead singer Woody Platt sang "Yellow-Backed Fly" while Martin cast doubts that "Woody Platt" was his real name. Before playing the title track from "The Crow," Martin gestured to the row of banjos behind him and deadpanned, "I like to think of my banjos as my children, which means that one of them probably isn't mine."
The next tune, which Martin introduced as "My Masseuse is Too Chatty," turned out to be "Jubilation Day," a song Martin recorded with the Rangers on the 2011 release "Rare Bird Alert."
Next Martin welcomed singer Edie Brickell to the stage. If you're like me and came of age in the 80s, then you probably remember the hippyish Brickell singing "What I Am" with her band, New Bohemians, on MTV. You know, back when the channel actually played music videos? Brickell married music legend Paul Simon back in 1992 and has quietly continued to make music while raising a family. Martin and Brickell collaborated on this year's album "Love Has Come For You," and Brickell kicked her portion of the show off with "Shawnee," a Appalachian-flavored tune from the new record. As Martin and Brickell explained between songs, the collaboration started when Martin sent Brickell a banjo instrumental, seeing if she could write some lyrics for it. That one song led to another, then another, until the pair realized that they had an album's worth of material.
Brickell then performed "When You Get to Asheville," one of the prettier tunes on the album. The song, reminiscent of the style of Abigail Washburn, showed that even a quarter-century after her first big hit, Brickell is still that cute, hippy girl from next door. Wearing a simple black dress and cowboy boots, Brickell seemed totally at ease telling stories about growing up in Texas and her inspirations for some of the songs.
For the next song the Rangers and Brickell left the stage, leaving Martin to perform a song solo. Martin was using an iPad next to his microphone stand, presumably for help with chords and lyrics, and he introduced the next song as "Angry Birds: Level 7," which got a big laugh. The Rangers and Brickell soon re-emerged and, late in the first set, Brickell treated the crowd to more of her lovely voice as she performed the title track to "Love Has Come For You." Beforehand Brickell explained that the song's opening lyrics—"She had a child by that man from the bank"—had suddenly come to her and she knew it was going to be a good tune. The next song, "Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby," was inspired by a story Brickell read about a baby that was found abandoned in a suitcase by an older couple who kept the child and raised it as their own. Brickell singing "Woo-woo, baby, woo-woo, you're my baby now," had me reminiscing about Brickell in her younger days. She still has a beautifully breathy delivery that injects an extra dose of emotion into whatever lyrics she happens to be singing at the time.
Just before taking a break, Martin advised the audience, "By the way, if you're not enjoying the show so far, you're wrong."
After the short intermission, Martin and the Rangers returned to the stage and kicked into "Me and Paul Revere." Sung by Platt, the song cleverly told the story of the famous midnight ride from the horse's point of view. Martin then gave Steep Canyon Rangers the stage, and the band performed a gorgeous a cappella song that earned them praise from Martin as only Martin can deliver:
"Once you learn to play your instruments to that, you'll really have something," said the comedian, earning yet another laugh from the audience.
Martin then led the Rangers through another a cappella song (obviously written by the comedian) called "Athiests Don't Have No Songs." The tongue-in-cheek lyrics had the crowd rolling, and the members of the Rangers had their timing down perfectly.
Brickell returned to the stage and the musicians kicked into "Yes She Did," which Martin promptly messed up on in the first verse. "Let's start over," said Martin, and on the second attempt he stumbled yet again in almost the same place. Looking sheepish, Martin gave it a third try, and managed to hold it together for the song, which actually only lasts about 90 seconds. Brickell and the band performed a few more songs from the new album, including "Siamese Cat," "Remember Me This Way," "Fighter," and "Friend of Mine." "Sun's Gonna Shine" was a beautifully positive tune that would have sounded just fine on that New Bohemians album back in the 80s.
Martin then took lead vocals for a change on a new song, "Pretty Little One."
"We've come to our last song," said Martin, earning a collective groan of disappointment from the crowd. "Don't worry," he said in a soothing tone, "Your ticket entitles you to help load the sound equipment into the truck after the show." He then added, "I hope you've enjoyed listening to this music as much as I've enjoyed finger-syncing to it over a record playing offstage."
The band then played "Austen's Train," a song based on the poem "Calypso," by W.H. Auden. During the song, the entire show was nearly stolen by Steep Canyon Rangers fiddle player Nicky Sanders, who blasted off on a fiddle solo that incorporated snippets of everything from Aram Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" to Dick Dale's "Misirlou." It was one of the most incredible feats of musicianship I've seen in awhile, and when I saw Sanders at the merchandise table after the show, he admitted that about 60 percent of the solo is improvised on the spot. The musicians returned for a short encore of two songs before sending the audience on its way.
After seeing Martin live I can now honestly say that a large part of the sting of never getting to see him do stand-up has passed. Martin deftly mixed music with comedy, never overdoing it on either side. He didn't play a bluegrass version of "King Tut" like I was hoping, but with the accompaniment of Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell, Monday night's show was one of the best I've seen in Charleston so far this year.