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The Borscht Belt and bluegrass music were never exactly synonymous, but, in their current tour as a musical-comedy duo, Steve Martin and Martin Short make the distance between the Catskills and the Appalachians seem a lot shorter. “Touring with Steve is a lot like the movie Deliverance: It’s all fun and games till the banjos come out,” said Short, midway through a Sunday night stop at the Santa Barbara Bowl, which gave a good indication of what it might have been like back in the day if Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had occasionally used Flatt or Scruggs as a fill-in.
The duo’s very intermittent tour — which seems to be touching down in every part of the country except for a proper L.A. or NYC stop, so far — represents the closest thing to pure standup Martin has allowed himself to indulge in since he resumed live performing in 2009 after a 30-year layoff. For the first few years of that resumption, at least, Martin’s shows consisted primarily of crackerjack instrumental performances, with bonus deadpan one-liners about bluegrass between songs. Now, in his outings with Short, the equation is reversed, with only a small portion of the set devoted to Martin fronting some of the greatest acoustic pickers in the world, and the rest devoted unapologetically to shtick instead of steel strings. Imagine seeing a full-length Hope and Crosby mutual-insult act with a few moments of Alison Krauss sublimity weirdly wedged in the middle, and you’ll have the idea.
The Krauss reference isn’t completely random. Martin usually performs with the Steep Canyon Rangers, but for three California dates on this joint tour, for reasons unknown, the billing instead promised “the All Male Bluegrass Boys”… whomever they might be? To the delight of the admittedly small portion of the Santa Barbara Bowl audience that might have clamored for less comedy and more clawhammer, these ad hoc Boys turned out to include Union Station members Ron Block and Barry Bales, along with fellow genre all-stars Stuart Duncan, Jeff White and Adam Steffey. That’s too great an ensemble to only perform a 20- to 25-minute slot three times, but maybe Martin will assemble them again, the next time he’s Short-less.
Short did actually participate in part of the bluegrass segment, taking up pistols and putting on cowgirl drag to play the endangered but resourceful heroine of Martin’s murder ballad homage, “Pretty Little One.” (Martin introduced the tune with the same line he’s used in his all-bluegrass shows over the years: “It’s a story song, and I’ll explain what a story song is … in case you’re an idiot.”)
As they took turns commanding the stage, Short had his own solo musical zigs to counter Martin’s zags. Working with pianist Jeff Babko, his longtime musical director (and Jimmy Kimmel’s keyboardist and arranger), Short revived a couple of Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman songs from his oddball Broadway musical of a few years back, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. One was the declaratory “All I Ask (Is You Love Me),” now amended to “us” for duo purposes. The other, in deference to the time early in his career when both Jesus musicals and nudie musicals were in fashion, was the raunchy/inspirational “Step Brother to Jesus,” with Short parading in a curly wig and nude bodysuit, making things as flappingly anatomically correct as possible with crotch-level hand gestures … yes, they’re “working blue” in all the possible ways.
The one aberration at the Santa Barbara show was a lengthy time-out for surprise guest Billy Crystal to come out on stage and tell a story about opening for Sammy Davis Jr., which fit right in with the earlier tales Martin told about meeting Elvis (“Son, you have an oblique sense of humor”) and Short’s story of upsetting Frank Sinatra by bungling a drink order. Crystal reappeared at the finale to present Martin with a cake in honor of his 71st birthday that very night, which led to the recipient feigning a fatal heart attack, then seemingly blowing out all 71 candles and doing a triumphal strut.
The show as it stands has no structure, which is fine. When they first began doing a few gigs together, Martin and Short sat together for a conversation of showbiz reminiscing, followed by an audience Q&A, in what struck some attendees at the time as being more like a book tour than a comedy show. Since then, they’ve jettisoned the Q&A, made the sit-down a minor part of the set, and embellished the whole show with “bits,” like one that has Short’s Jiminy Glick character as a ventriloquist’s puppet in Martin’s hands, commenting on politicians’ photos. Donald Trump, we learned, is “doing a remake of Three Amigos … the No Amigos.”
The best bit, though, may have been the stretch that had Martin and Short trading barbs, the theme of the evening — if any — being mutual assured ego destruction. It recalled a slightly kinder and gentler era of celebrity roast culture, in which the insults could be mild ones about pale skin, age and bygone career peaks. And there’s curtness to the jokes that allows for about a million of ‘em. When Martin can tell a gag in 15 words or less — “If you take one thing away from tonight’s show, I will have you arrested” — is he a product of the Henny Youngman era, or has he really become a master of zen economy from operating a Twitter account, or both?
And while we’re asking questions, why are Martin and Short dodging L.A. and New York, making Angelinos drive up to Santa Barbara to see the pound-for-pound funniest show on the road when it rightfully belongs in Hollywood’s Bowl as well as theirs? Maybe they’re still considering it one long out-of-town tryout.
It’s ironic, in any case, that it seems like it was Martin’s seriousness about bluegrass that finally led him to feeling relaxed about being funny on stage again. There are no mock arrows through the head in this show (except in a video montage), but during the closing number, while Short did a momentary Ed Grimley dance, Martin did a couple of seconds of “wild and crazy guy” boogying — a sight most fans thought they’d never see again in this lifetime.
Why so loose? Maybe that’s just the sort of thing getting to be an honorary member of Union Station will do to you.
This review originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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