Blue is the Color of Steve Martin’s Grass

Steve Martin's The Crow

We know what you’re thinking: Oh, great, another celebrity banjo album.

Actually, yes. The Crow, the collection of banjo tunes written (save for one) and performed by Steve Martin — uh-huh, that one — is truly wonderful. It says so right on the cover. And our opening joke is an, er, homage to one that a barely-legal Martin had in his stand-up routine in the mid-60s, way before Saturday Night Live or the movies or the New Yorker essays or the Kennedy Center honors.

“You’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is just another banjo-magic act’,” he’d quip. Back then, he banjo-ed out of desperation, lacking enough surefire jokes to fill out his contracted 25-minute set.

At his ebullient 90-minute hoedown at the Warner Theatre last night, the beloved multi-hyphenate entertainer told jokes to fill time while he fussily tuned his banjo. For part of the show, he played the same mystical five-stringed device that he’d lugged around San Francisco when he was nineteen. Martin, 64, never stopped playing, but he found his interest renewed in 2001, when bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs invited him to perform on a record that later won a Grammy.

“People ask me, ‘Hey, Steve — why start a music career now?’”, he told an audience wherein actual bluegrass aficionados at least sounded like they outnumbered looky-loos. “I say, ‘You guys are my band.’”

Point of fact, they’re the Steep Canyon Rangers, a sterling bluegrass outfit out of Asheville, North Carolina, a generation younger than Martin and second fiddle to nobody. For one thing, they’ve got only one fiddler in their band: Nicky Sanders’ manic, string-snapping workout on “Orange Blossom Special” earned him a standing ovation.

The Rangers probably sold some albums when Martin ceded the stage for a three-song mid-show interlude that peaked with the honeyed gospel of “I Can’t Sit Down.” When their five voices joined to harmonize on the a cappella tune, the room held its collective breath.

But the evening was more about pickin’ than singin’, and more about Martin than his brilliant sidemen. In the bluegrass world, Martin is revered for his skill at a difficult picking technique known as “frailing” or “clawhammer.” Hence the “Clawhammer Medley,” wherein Martin let his nimble fingers fly on an fidgety sequence of folk traditionals.

Otherwise, he graciously shared the spotlight, allowing each of the Rangers to solo, and introducing them by name when he wasn’t mock-reprimanding them for upstaging him. The band got more of a showcase, for example, than the bluegrass ringers supporting Elvis Costello as The Sugarcanes did at Wolf Trap back in June.

Martin outsourced the vocals on the ballads, and on the lovely faux-memoir* “Daddy Played the Banjo,” to handsome Ranger Woody Platt, but he sang the funny songs himself. “Late for School,” is a guileless, Shel Silverstein-like travelogue, but the performance didn’t quite lift off the way it should have. Martin was better on “Jubilation Day,” a breakup song so recent it isn’t on his album.

He closed with a hayride through his 1978 novelty hit “King Tut.” But bittersweet compositions like “Words Unspoken” reinforced what his plays and prose have already demonstrated: mirth is far from the only emotion within his power to conjure.

“To play banjo in Washington, DC has long been a dream of mine,” he said near the evening’s end. “Tonight I feel one step closer to that goal.”

Everyone’s a comedian.

A version of this review appears in tomorrow’s Paper of Record.

*Daddy did not play the banjo. In his award-winning** liner notes for The Crow, Martin writes, “My father dabbled at the clarinet passably.” Get over it. John Fogerty wasn’t “Born on the Bayou,” either. He grew up in California. Like Steve Martin.

**”Best Liner Notesfor a Recorded Project,” Bluegrass Music Association Awards, 2009. He also took “Best Graphic Design.”

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