In another life Steve Martin might have been known as a banjo virtuoso with a hidden talent for being funny. The famed comedian and actor, better known for “Father of the Bride,” “Roxanne” and “Saturday Night Live” than for bluegrass, has nevertheless been playing the instrument for more than 50 years. While he has often worked brief bits of banjo into his comedy albums and stand-up act throughout his career, his first all-music album was released just four years ago.
This new phase of his career is much more than a vanity project. Martin has world-class bluegrass chops, capably switching back and forth between speedy Scruggs-style picking and more traditional “clawhammer” strumming. His taste in backup musicians and collaborators is also impeccable. Joining him Saturday night at the Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield location was the Steep Canyon Rangers, a young North Carolina bluegrass band with a Grammy-winning career of its own. “I don’t like to think of the Steep Canyon Rangers as my backup band,” he said at one point, “it’s more like I’m their celebrity.”
Also along for the ride was singer Edie Brickell, formerly of the late ‘80s alt-rock band the New Bohemians, with whom Martin recorded the album “Love Has Come for You” earlier this year. Brickell joined Martin and the Rangers for a good half of the show, lending her smooth and sweet vocals, at times reminiscent of Emmylou Harris, to tunes from the new record like “When you Get to Nashville” and “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby.”
The evening’s set was played against the impressive backdrop of a massive thunderstorm over the Denver area that, thankfully, never quite made it close enough to the foothills to cause anything but strong winds. Martin was the obvious ringleader, kicking off most of the songs and laying down complicated banjo melodies that formed the foundation of most of the music. However, he allowed the other musicians on stage to shine as well, with the members of the Rangers each getting ample solo time to show off their fast, precise pickin’ skills.
Despite all the virtuosity onstage the show was not without its funny moments, as would be expected. While much of the set was instrumental, many of songs on which Martin took the mic reflected his goofy, self-deprecating humor, including tunes like “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” and “Jubilation Day.” He also was not shy about firing off jokes between songs. “I went and saw Eric Clapton the other day,” he said at one point while discussing his own instrumental prowess, “he’s not so funny.” That being said, even ‘ol slowhand probably couldn’t pick bluegrass quite like this wild and crazy guy.
Jonathan Gang is a regular contributor to Reverb.
Jason Bullinger is a graphic designer, illustrator and photographer and a new contributor with Reverb.