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Concert Reviews:
Steve Martin Picks And Grins For Orchestra Hall Crowd

of the Oakland Press

Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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DETROIT -- Steve Martin is a very funny man -- even with a banjo in his hands.

Martin and North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers were at Orchestra Hall on Monday night (April 19) mostly to play bluegrass music and celebrate the Grammy Award-winning success of the actor and comedian's first music album, "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo." But Martin was savvy enough to know that any audience coming to see him in any permutation expects to laugh, at least a little. And he delivered.

From the get-go, actually. "I'll tell you one thing -- I wish I'd practiced," Martin said as he walked on stage Monday, eyeing the staid opulence of the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, before dryly adding that "It's been a longtime dream of mine to play bluegrass music at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, and I feel one step closer to it tonight."

Martin mixed humor with music throughout the night, heckling late arrivals and playing what he called a "Toyota banjo," which he played at increasing and seeingly uncontrollable speed. "If that joke didn't work here, it wasn't gonna work anywhere," he noted afterwards. Martin waxed romantically about life on the tour bus -- noting that the Steep Canyon Rangers told him about it while he was on his private plane -- and even tweeted from the iPad attached to his microphone stand, which also held the night's set list.

And after joking about how Charles Humphrey III's bass doubled as a refrigerator, Martin took a mid-show break by asking Humphrey for a beer -- which he promptly removed from the back of his instrument.

The laughs crept into the music as well, particularly in the break-up song "Jubilation Day," the family-friendly "Late For School" and in the a capella "Atheists Have the Blues," which included verses such as "Catholics, they go to mass/And listen to Gregorian chants/Atheists just take a pass/And watch football in their underpants."

And, yes, he even included his 1978 comedy hit "King Tut" in one of the encores, complete with a banjo solo.

And rest assured that the music itself was no joking matter to Martin and company. "The Crow" has established him as a more than fair banjo player and a strong songwriter, and the 21-song, hour-and-45-minute performance on Monday affirmed that Martin is a valid, well, player in the bluegrass world. "Pitkin County Turnaround" got things off to a lively start, with Martin and the five Steep Canyon Rangers passing the musical ball with short solo breaks. "Daddy Played the Banjo," with the Rangers' Woody Platt singing lead, took things in a more melodic direction, while the mellow "Words Unspoken" was packaged in a medley with "Hoedown at Alice's" and "Freddie's Lilt." Martin also played a few new and unrecorded pieces -- including "Hide Behind a Rock" and the furious "Ignition."

The Rangers, meanwhile, were no small part of the show; the night's loudest ovation, in fact, was for the quintet's a capella performance of the gospel song "I Can't Sit Down," while fiddler Nicholas M. Sanders was a show-stealer all night, dueting with Martin on "Hide Behind a Rock" and leading the troupe through an energetic encore rendition of the Ervin T. Rouse standard "Orange Blossom Special." The group members also played effective, poker-faced foils for Martin's one-liners.

So it was indeed a night of pickin' and grinnin' -- and even some laughing. But the music was the headliner, as engaging and accomplished as any of the other works Martin has produced in his multi-faceted career.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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