Live Review: Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers,Abigail Washburn in Los Angeles
About three-quarters of the way through his combination hot licks-'n'-laughs show, Steve Martin noted that he was about to perform a "relaxing banjo tune," a bit of a nonsequitur as far as he was concerned. The tune fit its billing just fine at a full Walt Disney Concert Hall , but it was hardly the rarity Martin perceived it to be; judging by his compositions from his album "The Crow" that were performed Wednesday (10/28), the comedian really does have a command of this apparent oddity, the "relaxing banjo tune."
Martin, a bluegrass picker for nearly 50 years, and the Steep Canyon Rangers, an admired bluegrass quintet from Asheville, NC, mesh loopiness and finessed musicianship in fine balance. Jokes fill the 30- or 45-second gaps between songs, most of which are penned by Martin, turning the smiles created by the melodically pleasing music into guffaws.
The songs themselves are serious-minded yet playful and pop-oriented. Martin favors the mid-tempo, pushing "Pretty Flowers," written in waltz time, into a trot, while slowing several of the vehicles that provide room for hot-shot solos. Construction of the songs leans toward the modern rather than traditional banjo and fiddle tunes; after opening with two Irish-rooted tunes, ethnic elements disappeared.
"Pitkin County Turnaround," an uptempo bluegrass tune loaded with deftly executed stops and starts, stood out as his most orchestrated work and one that found the hall swell with richness in sound. He explained the clawhammer (less flashy than the finger-picking of bluegrass, it's mostly a rhythmic mountain style) and played a medley of old-timey classics that oozed with charm.
The jokes mixed the absurd and the obvious with plenty of Hollywood references. One of the best came when he spoke about his desire to chronicle his life in song, but met resistance from his record company when he wanted to title a track "I Think My Masseuse is Too Chatty." It's just not bluesy enough, apparently.
Besides giving the Steep Canyon Rangers a two-song showcase, Martin also brought out Bela Fleck for a three-banjo lineup on the album's title track. Fleck also performed with the opening act: his wife and fellow banjo player/singer Abigail Washburn, whose compelling 45-minute set bounced between Appalachian gospel and blues, traditional Chinese music and some gorgeous music that neither suggested time nor place. Backed by fiddle and cello, Washburn's performance was worldly and refreshing, a bit of genre-hopping bound by integrity.