Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers: Concert Review

Ed Helms Steve Martin 2012
Lincoln Andrew DeFer
The sextet gave a finger-lickin' fun performance with Martin's comic banter between songs.

Fresh off their appearance at Stagecoach, the six combine for another skillful showcase of witty, wonderful bluegrass.

TV’s Hee-Haw may have put the phrase “pickin’ and grinnin’” on the map in the 1960s, but Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers have embraced it like none other.

On Saturday night, during the third annual Los Angeles Bluegrass Situation, a long weekend of American roots music put together by actor-comedian Ed Helms, Martin and the five Rangers delivered a theatrical two-hour evening of clever, finger-licking fun to a capacity crowd of about 350 folks at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles.

“I drove up and I saw a picture of me with the sign, ‘Sold Out,’ and I thought, ‘So rude,’” Martin said early on.

With tasty jokes like that between songs, Martin, 66, demonstrated he hasn’t shucked any of his comic sensibilities to concentrate on this new career as a Grammy-winning bluegrass songwriter and banjo player. But when he played, whether he was three-finger picking or using the “clawhammer” style, he showed he has the chops to make it as a musician too.

Martin even playfully struck the pretentious pose of a rock star during the show, alternating among five banjos and tuning them onstage. “I think of my banjos as my children,” he said. “Which means, one of them is probably not mine.”

Martin commingled both careers on such witty ditties from 2011’s Rare Bird Alert CD as “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” a hymnal that features the line, “In their songs they have a rule: The ‘he’ is always lower case,” and “Jubilation Day,” where Martin notes that breakups can be a great thing (“I'll always remember the good times, like when you had the flu.”).

On the new “Pretty Little One,” a fine entry into the bluegrass subset of “murder ballad,” Martin turns the tables and sings about the girl in the song shooting her assailant. And on “Wally on the Run,” which Martin wrote after his white Labrador kept pestering him to throw him the ball in the backyard, ol’ Wally himself trotted out and received a treat.

Meanwhile, the Rangers -- Woody Platt (guitar and lead vocals), Charles Humphrey III (standup bass/vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin/vocals), Graham Sharp (banjo/vocals) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle/vocals), like Martin each in a jacket and tie -- played fabulously alone and with Martin and combined for some of the finest air-tight harmonies to come out of the Smokies. (The fivesome has a new CD, Nobody Knows You, just out.)

While all the North Carolinians were spectacular, it was the light-fingered, light-on-his-feet Sanders who especially sparkled, like on “Best Love,” one of the few noncynical romantic songs of the night, and on the closer, the 1930s Ervin T. Rouse classic “Orange Blossom Special.” For his take on the fiddle player’s national anthem, Sanders made his instrument sound like a steam train while mixing in TV theme songs including The Flintstones.

The Rangers’ impeccable timing also was on display during their comic banter with Martin between songs -- dare we call it wry grass? -- making the night often seem like a Smothers Brothers sketch (Martin wrote for them back in the ’60s).

“We hope you had as much fun as we had finger-synching to the recordings being played onstage,” Martin said to the audience.

We did.

Helms, as he did before each Bluegrass Situation show, auctioned off a customized Goodtime banjo from Deering to benefit Education Through Music-Los Angeles. The one Saturday night went for $1,200.


Twitter: @mikebarnes4