Martin and Steep Canyon mix stand-up with bluegrass
By Varun Bhuchar, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2012
When Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage in front of an excited and sold-out crowd last night in Spaulding Auditorium, Martin remarked that it had always been his dream to play bluegrass music in Hanover, eliciting uproarious laughter. Martin’s quip set the tone for the rest of the show: a combination of bluegrass music and stand-up comedy.
Martin, who won Best Bluegrass Album at the 2010 Grammy Awards, decided to unite his talent with the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainers of the Year, the Steep Canyon Rangers.
The Steep Canyon Rangers — although rated low on the pop charts but high on the bluegrass Billboard, according to Martin — are composed of Mike Guginno on mandolin, Charles Humphrey III on bass, Woody Platt on guitar, Nicky Sanders on fiddle and Graham Sharp on banjo.
“I know what you’re all thinking — ‘Look at the Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride to the bluegrass gravy train,’” Martin said at the start of the concert.
Martin, who spoke to the audience as he tuned his banjos between songs, served as an excellent comedic foil to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ more serious stage presence, making them look like a group of suffering musicians under his delusional, almost diva-like aura.
“I met [the band] at a party in North Carolina,” Martin said. “However, that’s too boring for Hollywood, so I said we met in rehab, where we may actually meet one day.”
The concert was a mixture of upbeat jigs, played in the Scruggs style — a hand position named after Earl Scruggs, who popularized a three-finger picking style — and tender ballads, played in the clawhammer style. This was not to be confused with the kama sutra position, Martin joked.
“People ask me, ‘Why a music career? Why now?’” Martin said, recalling the image of “sadness and melancholy” on his agent’s face when he said he was going on a banjo tour. Martin said, however, that it was the Steep Canyon Rangers who doubted him the most and questioned his career decision.
“Why? Why are you asking me?” Martin said. “You guys are my band.”
From audience reactions to Martin’s comedic quips between songs, it seemed that Martin himself was the main reason many audience members attended.
“I wanted to go because Steve Martin is an all-around beast,” Alexander Stockton ’15 said. “He’s a great writer, comedian and an amazing banjo player, and I wanted to see him in person.”
Stockton’s sentiment was echoed by residents of the Upper Valley who attended the concert.
“The main reason I came was to see Steve Martin,” Dan Lawrence, a resident of West Lebanon, said. “I’m not a bluegrass fan, but I love his career. He’s an amazingly talented guy.”
Martin, who is not new to the musical scene, having won a Grammy Award in 2003 for Best Country Instrumentalist, joked that he only learned what bluegrass was during the Steep Canyon Rangers’ sound check.
The Steep Canyon Rangers were formed out of the friendship between Platt and Guggino, according to Guggino.
“I grew up with Woody, our guitar player, and we met the other guys in college at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,” Guggino said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “I grew up with music, played music my whole life, but never mandolin and never bluegrass. Actually, all of us didn’t really get into bluegrass until college.”
Despite the early success of the band, Platt stuck to his old job as a fly-fishing tour guide, which is how he met Martin’s future wife Anne Stringfield, Martin said during the concert. It was through this connection that the band would eventually meet Martin, according to Platt.
“We met [Martin] through his wife, who was a friend of ours before they got married,” Platt said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “She introduced us and shortly thereafter he heard our record and thought we were killer. He was looking for a band and wanted to try us out for a couple of gigs, and here we are, going on three years.”
Martin’s partnership with the band has done wonders for their popularity, Guggino said.
“[His presence] definitely helps with our notoriety,” he said. “When we go to play our own stuff without him, we definitely notice a drop in our audience.”
Martin called the Steep Canyon Rangers a “band with a celebrity” as opposed to a celebrity with a band. He also said that if the audience did not walk away loving bluegrass, they should look themselves in the mirror and think seriously about what “they can bring, as an audience member,” to the next concert.
Nearly all of the songs performed last night were composed by Martin, and he poked fun at his compositions by likening the concert to comedian Jerry Seinfeld performing his stand-up comedy routine on the bassoon.
Beyond the comedic components, the band was excellent. Martin himself was truly a sight to behold. Most of his songs, such as “The Great Remember,” were instrumental — devoid of any “Weird Al” Yankovic parodies — and ranged from tender ballads like “Love Has Come for You” to murder ballads like “Pretty Little One.”
Serious songs that recalled bluegrass’ gospel influences, however, were balanced by more comical, lighthearted songs that Martin composed about atheists. One of the more comical songs of the night was the ride of Paul Revere but told from the perspective of his horse, called “Me and Paul Revere,” which Martin said maintained “historical accuracy.”
In addition to Martin, fiddler Sanders was also a particularly noteworthy performer, bringing down the house during the encore when the band performed the bluegrass classic “Orange Blossom Special.” Sanders’ solo incorporated refrains from “Ode to Joy,” “Live and Let Die” and even the theme song from “The Simpsons.”
Martin joked that “encore” was a French word for, “You have not satisfied us. Please play more so we get our money’s worth.”
Martin’s performance with the Steep Canyon Rangers was brilliant, proving why their latest combination album “Rare Bird Alert” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass chart.