By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
That Steve Martin, he’s a wild and crazy … banjo picker.
Who knew? Thursday night at the Cadillac Palace, Martin took the stage, banjo in hand and in the company of a five-member bluegrass band from North Carolina. For the next 90 minutes he joked around while performing mountain music or played mountain music while joking around. No matter, the night ended up quite a hoot and a holler — or a hollow, if this was Appalachia and not the Chicago Loop.
Bluegrass bands don’t typically draw well-heeled concertgoers in large theaters usually home to Broadway musicals, but this tour is just another to add to the left-field resume of Martin, who in his later years is demonstrating he is not just a beloved film comedian but also a playwright, visual artist and novelist.
To be sure, this project, which includes an album of original banjo tunes released earlier this year, is part of a tenuous tradition. Namely, those Hollywood hobby bands fronted by Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and a long horror list of others.
Luckily, Martin sidesteps the issue. He is an average vocalist, a very good banjo player, but most importantly he is a reverent disciple of a storied music that has no use for pretension. So Martin exhibited none, which made his presentation even more enjoyable.
He served as the host, star and sideman, depending on the song. For others, which featured the band, he was not even on stage. The Steep Canyon Rangers performed nimble originals plus soft country ballads, which gamely featured the warm vocals of guitarist Woody Platt and frenetic bow work of fiddler Nicky Sanders.
Martin had credentials, too. He is not new to the music, having played banjo for leisure since he was in his teens. Name-checking his love of innovative duo Flatt & Scruggs was not vanity — he holds a Grammy for a recording made with Earl Scruggs. As an encore, the group played a frenzied cover of “Orange Blossom Special,” the national anthem of bluegrass popularized by Bill Monroe in the 1930s.
The instrumentals Martin and band performed together were playful, rhythmic loop-de-loops. In the middle, Martin performed solo, clawhammer style, then, accompanied by Sanders, in a duo setting of music played to mimic a dog disobeying a frustrated master.
The music’s lonesome undercurrents were not present for obvious reasons. “Sad and melancholy,” he said, introducing one song. “Just like when I told my agent I wanted to do a banjo tour.” What other bluegrass concert could feature a frontman announcing he “has a steaming hot ass?” Or who requests a banana from the bass player only to find it produced from the instrument’s secret compartment? Or who admits the original name of his album’s title song is “Let’s Keep the Minimum Wage Right Where It’s At”?
The absurdity, intentional and not, continued right through the second encore, when the band returned to dig into another bluegrass perennial — “King Tut,” Martin’s hit novelty record from 1978.
Does a song about an Egyptian pharaoh have a place among fiddles, mandolins and banjos? Is disco-funk-bluegrass a genre? By that point, even the senseless made sense.