Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers Provide
Brilliant Bluegrass and Wisecracks
By Lou Fancher
Better Than: Having to watch the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? to get your bluegrass fix.
There’s a certain glow and a tingling aftereffect to a Steve Martin bluegrass concert. Yes, maybe the buzz came from the film star or the wine served up at the outdoor venue in the rural flatlands of Livermore, but more likely, the good feelings came from the music itself. Arriving with gourmet dinner — or not — the fine fiddling and gorgeous harmonies of The Steep Canyon Rangers and their centerpiece (Martin), were a lot like a first date. One minute you’re laughing, the next minute you’re thinking one of the complete strangers onstage might be your soul mate…and every moment between is like either a bouncy ride in a pickup truck or a sleepy swing-along with a favorite somebody in a hammock.
Martin is the original “all of me” artist. And like the 1984 film All of Me that netted Martin a pair of Best Actor awards and the film two Golden Globe nominations, the actor/comedian/playwright/author/musician seems to have been inhabited by a number of identities. Whereas the movie has the soul of an aged heiress (played by Lily Tomlin) accidentally crashing its way into one-half of a down-on-his-luck wedding musician (Martin in a hilarious, spectacular performance of physical ambiguity and emotional turmoil), Wednesday night’s concert was a slick, jetliner ride with seasoned performers.
“Donald Trump is going to do a remake of one of my movies,” Martin said, getting political between songs early in the show. “It’s going to be called No Amigos.”
Among Martin’s film credits as actor/writer/producer is the 1996 film Three Amigos.
Offering a mock apology for high ticket prices, Martin explained that it takes 17 people to put on his show, including a celebrity look-alike for nights when the star doesn’t want to go onstage. “Steve says ‘Hi,’ by the way,” he added.
And with the lights and Martin’s Day-Glo suit gaining attraction as the sun set, he announced, “I’ve just found out that insects really do like pink suits. I discovered that when a cloud of them flew in my mouth just now.”
And so it went, with dry humor wedged between the thickly layered harmonies and powerhouse instrumentation of Martin and Rangers band members Woody Platt (guitar/lead vocals), Charles Humphrey III (standup bass/vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin/vocals), Graham Sharp (banjo/vocals), Nicky Sanders (fiddle/vocals) and Mike Ashworth (percussion/vocals).
“We used to travel without a drummer,” Martin said. “But we realized there was a big drawback to traveling without a drummer: no pot.”
Wasting no time and proving that their high-energy counterpoint melodies and hammer-like rhythmic passages were knit seamlessly by sweet harmonies and intricate solos, the bulk of the show was primarily about music, not Martin’s charm.
The Crow featured a spiffy solo turn by Sanders, Guggino’s tightly spun performance on the mandolin and Martin’s clawhammer-style finish.
“Some nights I play well, sometimes not. But you know, I went to see Eric Clapton play live and I thought… he’s not so funny,” Martin joked.
Jubilation Day’s too short solo for Humphrey showed just a glimmer of his loose, confident handling on bass and Martin proved “blah, blah, blah” can be substantial lyrics when a song’s subject is an ex-girlfriend and a bad breakup.
Two of the night’s strongest moments happened without Martin onstage. Radio, the title track from the Ranger’s new CD, had depth and energy, along with Platt’s ear-pleasing tenor rolling out as smooth and flavorful as one of the vineyard’s smoky mellow reds. Blow Me Away allowed Sanders to stretch out like the song’s “freight train rolling,” especially at the tune’s midpoint. Guggino on the mandolin roamed through the instruments’ dynamic range and — tethered by a rich bass, anchored by groove-like percussion, roughed up with a driving banjo line — the whole added up to more than the sum of its parts.
Martin returned to perform solo, offering a “little medley of three songs I wrote” that he jokingly said he had titled "Screw You Music, Thanks for Letting Us Down." Instead, the “little medley” offered the sonic equivalent of his dexterity in films; along with the raw slyness of his stand-up comedy and the heft of his books and articles. “Wide range” is a phrase frequently used to define a talented singer’s voice, but applied to Martin, it defines the artist he revealed himself to be.
Songwriters write to get the sadness out, suggested the lyrics in a tender ballad sung by Platt later in the evening. As if to prove the point that singing makes sadness disappear — or perhaps just because he tends to cut through sweet, mournful moods with humor — Martin leapt to intercede. He thanked the audience for coming to a live concert, then pumped the band’s CDs and said buying a recording and listening to it at home was much better than coming to a live show with all the parking hassles, the other people to put up with, and “the many, many mistakes made on stage.”
Auden’s Train closed the show and made the price of attendance seem a bargain. With Sander’s mach-speed bowing, Martin’s bubbling banjo underpinning and the band’s throbbing harmonies pushing up, down, around and around, the effect was dizzying, but deliriously so.
Critic's Notebook #1: Bluegrass music’s appeal is easy to understand: it’s happy music. Even during a ballad about unrequited love, you feel happy you’re able to feel sad. Add to that the undeniably impressive chops of Martin and the Rangers, toss in lightly sardonic quips and a bottle of pinot noir, a concert at Wente has no morning-after hangover, only a steady, golden afterglow.
Critic's Notebook #2: Impressively, all of the music played during the 90-minute set (except the Ranger’s two tunes) was written by Martin.