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“I can’t believe I’m playing bluegrass at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan,” proclaimed Steve Martin as he took the stage. “And neither can my movie career.”
Proceeding to deliver probably the funniest bluegrass concert ever, the Renaissance man movie star, performing with the terrific ensemble the Steep Canyon Rangers, proved that his musicianship is no joke. The show kicked off a tour to promote his just released second bluegrass album, Rare Bird Alert. His first, 2009’s The Crow, won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, with its title track rising to the top of the bluegrass charts (“On the pop charts it went to #10,237”).
Performing on banjo and providing the occasional vocal, the dapper actor displayed his considerable instrumental prowess, including his mastery of the difficult “clawhammer” picking style, in a nearly two-hour show composed almost entirely of self-penned original songs.
While the impressive instrumentals rank with the best of contemporary bluegrass, it was in the vocal numbers that Martin’s distinctive comic talent shone. The jaunty “Jubilation Day” is perhaps the funniest break-up song ever, while the hilarity of “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” was even more accentuated by its immediately following the Rangers’ gorgeous a cappella rendition of the spiritual, “I Can’t Sit Down.” His more serious songwriting side was showcased in such love songs as “You” and “The Great Remember.”
Martin allowed plenty of opportunities for the Rangers to shine, especially fiddler Nicky Sanders, whose virtuosic soloing on the classic “Orange Blossom Special” was a show highlight. And he ceded lead vocals to Woody Platt (“The most perfect bluegrass name in the world,” Martin pointed out) on the lovely “Daddy Played the Banjo.”
Unlike Woody Allen, who barely looks at the audience or says a word during his musical excursions, Martin treated the crowd to a steady stream of riotous one-liners in between numbers, all delivered in his typically droll fashion.
“Tonight I’m doing two of my favorite things,” he said at one point. “Comedy…and charging people to hear music.” He joked about the iPad he used for his set list (“It was $800, but audiences demand it”) and his fancy electronic tuner that never seemed to work properly.
He also periodically employed the Rangers as straight men for comic bits, although their wooden delivery revealed that they probably shouldn’t give up their day jobs.
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