Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Another review of Steve at the Rubin
Vanity Fair Online
Steve Martin, Bodhisattva on Banjo
by David Friend
May 29, 2009, 12:42 PM
Steve-Martin_88025699.jpgActor and musician Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers perform at Rubin Museum of Art on May 27, 2009 in New York City. By Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
The redoubtable Steve Martin, comedian-actor-playwright-novelist-essayist-vocalist and balloon-sculpture model, is also a first-rate bluegrass artist, as evidenced this week in his series of banjo jamborees with the Steep Canyon Rangers at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art.
His concert last night, “A Tentative Evening of Bluegrass,” was that giddy amalgam we’ve come to expect from the inimitable Martin: equal parts deadpan, Tin Pan, and pandemonium, with gusts of “A Mighty Wind,” Victor Borge, and P.D.Q. Bach. The setting set the tone. Manhattan’s premiere showcase for Himalayan Art, the Rubin (known for its unrivaled and always eclectic Buddhist-chic slate of performances, lectures, and screenings) has literally zero thematic overlap with bluegrass. But that didn’t stop the Rubin’s inventive producer, Tim McHenry (a former Vanity Fair staffer), from booking Martin and justifying it thusly: “In 2003, musicologists from the University of North Carolina went to Tibet to explain the connection between bluegrass and Tibetan culture. And they found they had something in common: Plucking.” (Music, McHenry posited, is sometimes a reliable path to enlightenment. And rare is the venue in which entertainers can make reference to both a mountaintop bodhisattva and the Foggy Mountain Boys.)
The sextet of Martin and the hirsute, lightning-fingered Steep Canyon Rangers (whose “Lovin’ Pretty Woman” was nominated in 2008 for Bluegrass Album of the Year) went through a boisterous, rollicking, frolicking set that was transcendent in its own whacked-out way. Fiddler Nicky Sanders’s stroking stoked the crowd. Mike Guggino lovingly attacked his mandolin. Guitarist-vocalist Woody Platt, resembling a young Andy Griffith, delivered Glen Campbellished, Del McCoury-ian vocals. And Martin, throughout, was polished, poised, and hilarious.
The four highlights of the night: the Johnny Cash-Goes-To-Kashmir “Song of the Old West” (rechristened “Song of the Old East,” with some subtle raga inflections); the homey, way-Wobegon “Late For School”; the exquisitely heart-warming and electric “Orange Blossom Special” (with Sanders effecting a fiddle-fueled freight train); and Martin’s “The Crow,” performed as a banjo menage-a-trois, thanks to a cameo by Tony Trischka. (Earlier this year, Martin’s song “The Crow,” as the comedian explained, “actually became a minor hit on the bluegrass charts [which means] it’s a big hit on the bluegrass charts, selling, oh, 700 copies.”)
By the end of the night, every cell in this listener’s frame was delightfully athrob.