Martin delights Boston with banjo tunes

A review of Steve Martin and the The Steep Canyon Rangers at the Citi Wang Theatre on October 7, 2009

, Staff Writer

Steve Martin, obviously, is known for his work in film above all else, and his legacy is going to be first and foremost as a comedian. But it turns out Steve Martin has been playing the banjo for nearly forty years, working on his finger picking and writing bluegrass songs. He’s showcased his hidden talent with a a debut album, The Crow: New Songs For The 5-String Banjo, and subsequent tour that brought him to Boston’s Citi Wang Theatre on Wednesday night.

Released earlier this year, The Crow: New Songs For The 5-String Banjo has garnered a lot of attention and sat within the top five of Billboard’s Bluegrass charts. Sure it helps that he has the name recognition but it turns out Steve Martin has got some pretty solid chops on banjo. With help from bluegrass outfit The Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin delivered a thoroughly enjoyable evening that showed off the comedian’s own banjo skills while also allowing the virtuosity of his backing band to come through more often than not.

The show started off with writer Dave Barry giving a brief talk on the origins of the banjo, the briefest of primers on the instrument’s history, before Martin came on stage. The two interacted briefly in an interview that allowed Martin’s comedic talents take center stage, but the music quickly took over. Martin played a tune called “Clawhammer Medley” completely solo, staying precise with his rhythm and showing his legitimacy with the instrument early on in the show. The Rangers came on at this point, and things got really enjoyable from here on out.

Far from just being Steve Martin’s backup band, the Rangers are a young bluegrass group of their own, and have released some fine material before this tour. Playing with Steve Martin has allowed them to show off their work to a much larger audience than before, but they don’t act too beholden to the man when on stage. To begin with, all of them can sing well, while Martin can, well, hit the notes, at least. He was pretty quick to point this out, though. Before singing “Jubilation Day,” Martin commented that he knows his limits, and that when the song is actually recorded, they’ll get someone “good” to provide vocals. The four-part harmonies that came from the Rangers were impressive, though, and that’s nothing compared to what the guys could do with their instruments. He also took the lead on “Late For School”, but once again, the man’s skills lie elsewhere.

“Saga Of the Old West” was the highlight of the evening, showcasing each of the instrumentalists by granting each of them the opportunity to solo. The presence of two banjo players actually worked out really well as Martin and Graham Sharp did a good job of not stepping on each other’s toes, and played perfectly together throughout the show. Mandolin player Mike Guggino provided some wonderful high-end strings, playing somewhat rhythmically-complex passages during his solos with no problem at all. On the upright bass, Charles Humphrey III kept the band together and in time very well, especially considering the lack of actual percussion instruments to fall back on.

And then there was Nicky Sanders, on the fiddle. As part of the encore, Sanders was put front-and-center for a performance of an old bluegrass tune, “Orange Blossom Special.” In between bouts of vocal harmonies, Sanders went crazy on his instrument, playing incredibly fast passages throughout the entire range of the fiddle. He perfectly emulated the sound of a train horn on the thing, and, I swear, when he was finished, the resin kicked up by such fast playing made it look like smoke was rising.

If anything, the concert felt a bit too short. It clocked in at about 80 minutes, but we were in and out before even ten o’clock, and it definitely felt like there could have been another set. The problem is, Martin just doesn’t have a lot of output built up yet, so they played literally every song they knew, including a couple that have yet to be recorded, like the closing instrumental of “Ignition.” Overall, though, Steve Martin demonstrated his love for the instrument, and showed that he can pick up on that stage with the best of them.

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