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Concert Reviews:
Steve Martin picks and grins at SoundBoard show

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2012

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DETROIT -- About halfway through his concert Thursday night, June 28, at the Motor City Casino Hotel, Steve Martin informed the SoundBoard crowd, "If you're not enjoying the show so far -- you're wrong."

It gave Martin the opportunity note that he and the Steep Canyon Rangers are the International Bluegrass Music Association's reigning Entertainer of the Year, but he needn't have worried. The group's combination of humor and hot playing over the course of 95 minutes insured that the proverbial good time was indeed had by all.

Martin is, of course, well established as a gifted and original comic and a solid actor. But he's spent the past three years staking a convincing claim as an equally accomplished musician and songwriter, with a pair of acclaimed albums -- the Grammy Award-winning "The Crow: New Songs For the 5-String Banjo" in 2009 and last year's Grammy-nominated "Rare Bird Alert" -- and enough touring to show that music is a serious endeavor and not a side project. And even amidst the abundant skills of his North Carolina-based cohorts, Martin's banjo chops held up, whether he was playing Scruggs style with finger picks or, on "The Great Remember," clawhammer style.

But the 16-song show mostly highlighted the exciting ensemble sensibility of good bluegrass, with the six musicians "passing the ball" and taking short, fleet solos, particularly on instrumentals such as "Pitkin County Turnaround," "The Crow" and "The Dance at the Wedding." Martin also introduced some new material, including the murder ballad "Pretty Little One" and "Love Has Come For You," one of the songs he's written with Edie Brickell and was sung on Thursday by SCR guitarist Woody Platt. "Auden's Train," meanwhile, featured fiddler NIcky Sanders, who variated from the song's melody to play snippets of a variety of other songs, including the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and theme from "The Simpsons."

It wouldn't be a Martin show without laughs, of course, and those came within the songs -- "Jubilation Day," "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" -- and between them, though Martin's comments were more measured and gentled than his once manic stand-up schtick. He commented about seeing a "sold out" banner plastered across his face on a billboard ("I thought...so rude!") and chided Platt about whether that was the guitarist's real name or a pseudonym created by some online bluegrass-naming site. And he spoke about the camaraderie of the tour bus -- which Martin said he heard about when he called the band from his private plane. Then again, SCR banjoist Graham Sharp pointed out to Martin that "you never call."

So there was plenty of pickin' AND grinnin' -- though "King Tut," the 1978 novelty hit that Martin and SCR have played in the past, was an unfortunate omission. But the ensemble's set was still charming and engaging, hopefully winning bluegrass a few more converts via Martin's high-profile.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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