By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
It’s hard to tell if Thursday night’s performance by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers was a comedy show hijacked by bluegrass music or the other way around. Either way, it was a success.
The 100-minute show in front of a sold-out Midland theater was a convergence of two of Martin’s passions. The banter between songs was full of the one-liners and comic sensibilities that have made Martin a movie star and inspiration to comedians since the 1970s. It also showcased the Martin’s banjo prowess, an instrument he picked up at 17.
Martin was quick to mock his celebrity status. Then he checked e-mail, sent tweets and playfully berated the five-piece Rangers between songs. While many of Martin’s songs had humorous themes, it was clear music was serious business.
It didn’t take long for the Rangers to prove themselves worthy musical and comedic foils. Showcasing Martin’s original material, the night opened with three instrumentals. For the bittersweet “Daddy Played Banjo,” Martin turned the mic over to Rangers’ guitarist Woody Platt’s pleasant tenor.
Later, “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” had a nice moment when the performance dropped to just Martin and Graham Sharp on banjos before rebuilding.
Knowing the evening was either an introduction to bluegrass or the first bluegrass show some had attended in a while, Martin took a few moments to explain the genre. Before the nostalgic “The Great Remember,” Martin demonstrated the difference between the Earl Scruggs style of playing — fast-paced with three fingers wearing picks — and the claw hammer style, which is slower and played sans picks.
After showing how the acoustic instruments can provide a natural percussion, Martin lamented, “There’s a downside to traveling with no drummer — no pot.”
Martin gave the Rangers two solo numbers. The first song, an instrumental, featured dramatic flourishes on Mike Guggino’s mandolin. The second was a gorgeous a capella version of the gospel song “I Can’t Sit Down” that had all the Rangers singing into one mic.
Not to be outdone, Martin returned and led the Rangers through his own a capella hymn, “Atheists Don’t Have no Songs.” Martin gleefully punctuated lines about atheists always having Sunday free and keeping “he” lowercase. His enthusiastically off-pitch stanzas punctured the song’s carefully constructed harmonies.
The set ended with two new songs, “Me and Paul Revere,” a story about the famous ride from the horse’s point of view, and “Auden’s Train.” The latter was a showcase for Nicky Sanders’ absurd fiddle playing, in which he not only mimicked the sound of a locomotive, but played a lengthy solo that incorporated bits of “Norwegian Wood,” the “Hallelujah Chorus,” “William Tell Overture” and “Live and Let Die.”
Some of Martin’s best non-musical bits were good enough to stand alone. A sampling:
“The next song is a sing-along. It’s also an instrumental, so good luck.”
“I think of my banjos as my children, which is to say one of them is probably not mine.”
“I guess I’m doing two of my favorite things now — comedy and charging people to hear music.”
“If you’re not having fun tonight, you’re wrong.”
He was right.