Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Monday, June 01, 2009

Review of Steve's recent banjo concert

MAY 30, 2009
Steve Martin Takes the Banjo Seriously
On CD and in concert, he plays his own delicate compositions


On stage at the Rubin Museum of Art here Wednesday night, the comedian, writer and musician Steve Martin demonstrated once again what is so clear on his new album, “The Crow—New Songs for the Five-String Banjo” (Rounder): He’s written some beautifully bittersweet songs for banjo, an instrument he’s played diligently, if not professionally, since his teen years.

Though the concert was billed as “A Tentative Evening of Bluegrass,” it presented Mr. Martin as a musician, not a comedian who plays around with music. “We’re not here for comedy,” he said gently. Which isn’t to say he fully suppressed his humor. “This is what I would play sitting around the living room by myself,” he announced at one point. “So would you all please leave.” Not only were we advised to turn off our cell phones, but also not to “murmur or make any facial expressions.” He allowed that the capacity crowd of 130 at the Rubin Museum was maybe just a bit smaller than the one that witnessed his recent performance on “American Idol.”

Supported by the Steep Canyon Rangers, Mr. Martin whipped up rousing bluegrass breakdowns and a cute tune about a boy racing to get to school. But during the best parts of the evening, he offered thoughtful readings of his delicate compositions, which are supple, never morose and rich with unexpected minor chords. By playing with tender restraint, he suggested a counterpoint to his familiar comedic persona. Though his face often was knit with concentration, it also glowed on occasion with tranquility, as if he’d found moments in which he lost himself within his music when expressing its layered emotions.
Tune In

Listen to a song from the new album “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo” by Steve Martin.

Though he incorporated the banjo into his comedy act as far back as the mid-’60s and originally released five of his compositions that appear on “The Crow” in 1981, on his album “The Steve Martin Brothers,” the 70-minute show here was only Mr. Martin’s second full-fledged concert as a banjoist; he played a fund-raiser at Club Nokia in Los Angeles on May 11. He’s considering a tour, but he told me he’d make a decision after the three-show stand here and two sets Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. After the sales bump from “Idol,” the concerts fall somewhere between a road test and a labor of love; as he told the audience at the Rubin Museum, “If everything sells out . . . I will only lose $12,000.”

When we spoke by phone on Memorial Day, the 63-year-old Mr. Martin said he’s long been self-conscious about his banjo playing, at least when measured against the likes of Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka, John McEuen and other masters with whom he’s played. He said he largely gave up his dream of becoming a top-shelf banjo player back in the late 1960s, when he was writing comedy for TV variety shows that featured musicians such as Glen Campbell, John Denver, the Smothers Brothers and Mason Williams.

“They didn’t even know I played,” he said. “Eventually the banjo moved into the background for me. It was kind of, ‘Well, I’ll never be a banjo player. The best work at it every day and I don’t—I work at comedy every day.’”

Still, Mr. Martin had written songs, beginning in the mid-1960s. When I mentioned that composing interesting material to play can trump technical expertise on an instrument, he said, “That’s what my shrink says,” adding, “I doubt my technical abilities, though they’re there.”

Growing up in Garden Grove, Calif., Mr. Martin taught himself to play banjo with records as his guide. “I had an advantage: I had no instructor,” he said. “I was on my own working out the songs.”

Country music wasn’t his primary influence. “I grew up with a different sound—those were the folk days,” he said. “I liked a lot of esoteric albums.” He mentioned “New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass” by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman, as well as the work of the Dillards, Billy Faier, Dick Weissman, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Mad Mountain Ramblers, who played Disneyland while Mr. Martin worked in its magic shop. “There were lots of different styles. That’s how I began to understand that the banjo had a wide range of emotions.”

On “The Crow,” support is provided by the likes of Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, who duet on “Pretty Flowers,” and Tim O’Brien, who sings “Daddy Played the Banjo,” which also features Mr. Scruggs and his son Gary, who co-wrote the tune. Other guests include Mr. Trischka, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, and Mr. Martin’s high-school pal Mr. McEuen, formerly of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on several instruments. The stately Irish folk singer Mary Black joins Mr. Martin on “Calico Train.”

But here at the Rubin Museum, Mr. Martin was without such notable guests, though the Steep Canyon Rangers are a highly capable bluegrass quintet with three albums under their collective belts. They followed Mr. Martin’s cue, playing with spirit on the up-tempo numbers but exploiting the delicate contours of his quieter songs. “Words Unspoken”—an appropriate title, Mr. Martin said, because the song has no lyrics—began with Mr. Martin playing a spry riff in unison with Woody Platt on guitar and Mike Guggino on mandolin before the band joined in on what settled into a wistful love song.

Mr. Martin told the crowd that “Daddy Played the Banjo” began as his attempt to write a bad poem on purpose; later, he realized, “this may be bad poetry, but it’s a pretty good country song.” In fact, Mr. Martin’s lyrics for the tune hold a surprising twist: The narrator, who claims to have taught his son to play the banjo, reveals he doesn’t have a child and is looking back on a time, as Mr. Platt sang, “when memories of what never was become the good old days.”

As demonstrated on “The Crow,” Mr. Martin’s instrumentals seem to have a similar narrative flow in which the tender and the unexpected meet to reveal a sentimentality not usually associated with banjo music.

“There’s drama in the songs whether it’s a big emotion or small emotions,” he told me. “With the banjo, you can take the same song and play it in an upbeat style or play it with soul in it.” For all the upbeat moments on “The Crow” and in his performance on Wednesday night, it was when Mr. Martin led with soul that his music found its transcendence.

—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at or follow him on Twitter@wsjrock.


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