Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers at Jones Hall, 7/31/2014
Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers Feat. Edie Brickell & Paul Simon
Photos by Jason Wolter
July 31 2014
The Houston Symphony must have enjoyed having the night off Thursday. But helpfully, Steve Martin was there to explain to any subscribers wondering what had happened to their concert hall that "Yo-Yo Ma is off making Cheaper By the Dozen 3."
The Waco-born actor/comedian/author and his Grammy-winning bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers were the symphony's guests for a sold-out evening of music and comedy, and occasional musical comedy; even his attempt to explain the old bluegrass tradition of murder ballads in the encore elicited some laughter. But despite Martin's constant efforts to maneuver the center of attention back onto him one way or another, he wound up being upstaged all over the place - including by one very special guest indeed.
Of course that air of casual, almost unwitting arrogance has become Martin's go-to public persona, and Thursday it was there from the outset. Noting the heavy congestion around Jones Hall before the show, he said, "I haven't caused this kind of a traffic jam since the last time I went jogging in shorts."
The wisecracks flew pretty past during the opening part of the program, all of them said in Martin's signature tone that's like "how do you not know that already?" - and extended to his "contractually obligated" introduction of the other Rangers. Martin would introduce the player, then either cut him off or cut him down with another barb, with the recipient perhaps not feeling as sheepish as he let on.
That kind of comedy spilled into a few of Thursday's songs, if not as many as you might think. Martin described "Jubliation Day" as about a "happy breakup," each line was another zinger on the order of "let's remember the good times...like when you were out of town."
But for all his talk, Martin fit in quite comfortably with his North Carolina-based bandmates. (Despite his earlier assertion, no doubt he met them elsewhere besides bluegrassmingle.com.) Musically, Martin is an adept banjo player but far from a show-off, anchoring the songs with simple chord patterns and his fair share of picking. Overall, though he seamlessly blended into the ensemble and would easily bow to his bandmates when it came time for a spotlight-grabbing solo. Fiddle player Nicky Sanders in particular drew heavy applause several times, perhaps most of all during "Auden's Train" in the encore, where he dropped in bits of War's "Low Rider" and the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" between long pulls of his bow that simulated a train whistle.
And surely frustrating Martin even more, the onetime wild and crazy guy faded even further into the background once he brought Edie Brickell out. The Dallas-bred singer dominated the evening's middle section with her warm, husky alto on tunes like the wistful "When You Get to Asheville" and the Grammy-winning title song to last year's album Love Has Come For You, which sounded deeply haunted with restless spirits. Brickell has plenty of wit of her own too, as she put forth when introducing "Tell Me She Didn't" with an extended tale of her eccentric family in northeast Texas.
"I thought I sent Edie a happy little banjo tune, and she sent back a song about suicide," Martin quipped.
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