I’ve never been to a show with four standing ovations – until last night. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers launched the Baby Boomer audience at Benaroya Hall out of its seats with a blend of stand-up comedy, banjo and bluegrass, and though one of the ovations was admittedly coerced (Martin before “Calico Train”: “This song has never not gotten a standing ovation”), the others were well deserved.
Over two hours, Martin and the North Carolina quintet played a rollicking set of standards, Irish jigs, and original songs from Martin’s new album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, that had a typically staid Seattle audience whooping and hollering. Though it’s easier to recall Martin’s stints on Saturday Night Live in the ’70s, or his time spent as the Pink Panther, Sgt. Bilko, or one of the Three Amigos, don’t dismiss his banjo-plucking as midlife dabbling. He has honed his skills over 45 years, and now displays a virtuosity sure to impress even the most cynical bluegrass fan. (If there is such a thing as a cynical bluegrass fan…)
Particularly impressive was his instrumental duet with fiddler Nicky Sanders on unrecorded original “Hide Behind a Rock”; Sanders later delivered a blistering fiddle solo on bluegrass standard “Orange Blossom Special” that left his bow tattered and the audience clamoring for more.
“What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?” Martin asked Sanders at one point.
“You can spill beer on a fiddle,” Sanders said. Even the band delivers punch lines.
As much as this show was about Martin – his music, his oft-hilarious lyrics (“Atheists’ Hymnbook,” anyone?) and series of one-liners – it was also a showcase for the energetic Steep Canyon Rangers. Named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Emerging Artist of the Year” in 2006, the Rangers ooze charm and talent, and come packaged as handsome, clean-cut Asheville boys in gray pinstripe suits. The women in the audience were cooing long after the show was over, particularly after hearing guitarist/lead singer Woody Platt’s rich vocals on songs like Martin’s sweet clawhammer tune “Daddy Played the Banjo.” The Rangers’ four-part harmony on a cappella hymn “I Can’t Sit Down” would have made the Beach Boys jealous.
Of course, Martin refuses to let the show get too precious. Encore No. 3 was the silly 1978 hit “King Tut,” which you can relive here.
Favorite line of the night: “I wanted to call this song ‘I Think My Masseuse is Too Chatty,’ but the studio wouldn’t go for it."
If you missed the show: Find The Crow online at stevemartin.com.