Things that are important to understand going into Steve Martin's bluegrass performance, backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers, at Merrill Auditorium: 1) The music is dead serious. 2) So is the comedy.
SERIOUS COMEDY Steve Martin’s brand of bluegrass.
"I've never taken a poll," says Martin, on the phone from Los Angeles, "but I think a lot of the audience doesn't know bluegrass well, or just kind of knows bluegrass, and I think the audience always leaves thinking, 'Wow. That was fantastic. And that's mostly due to the Steep Canyon Rangers.'"
"But we also do some comedy," he wants to assure potential attendees. "It's never just one song after another."
The Rangers aren't just some band Martin put together to make him look good. They're rising stars in the bluegrass world, with four widely acclaimed full-length discs to their credit and a loyal following. Nor, however, are they hired guns who handle all the bluegrass while Martin makes the funny. Martin wrote all but a couple of the tracks on their recently released collaboration, Rare Bird Alert, a follow-up to 2009's The Crow, which Martin created as a studio project with renowned banjo player Tony Trischka (Trischka will open the Merrill show, too).
Fate just happened to bring them together: His manager had arranged for a band to come over and run through some songs, and, "I didn't know if they were pros, or just guys getting together on Sunday afternoons," says Martin, "but I could immediately see they were pros, and I was a little cowed by it actually. Then we played some songs together, and I couldn't believe how my songs sounded. They'd never sounded that good to me before."
Next thing you know, they're recording an album together and touring to promote it. "It was just one of those lucky things in life where you get almost accidentally tied up with a group of people and it works out perfectly," Martin says. "It's a good creative mash."
What they are, musically (and probably comedically, though I haven't seen it in person), are the perfect straight men. While Martin is serious about his music, many of his songs have this little smirk about them, which works so much better when the harmonies are tight and the playing is top-drawer behind him. And, you know, he's Steve Martin, so he can get people like the Dixie Chicks and Paul McCartney to lend their talents to songs, too. Must be nice.
On a song like "Jubilation Day," Martin can vamp it up with lyrics like, "even your mom said you were nuts/You wear a red cape and a pitchfork" because Nicky Sanders just absolutely rips on the fiddle. And "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" delivers its irony best because the Rangers help Martin achieve a credible gospel delivery. I'm not a huge fan of funny in my music, but when the quality is this good, it's easier to tolerate.
They even do a quite-listenable bluegrass version of the iconic "King Tut," which Martin says he'll sometimes bust out as an encore.