Who plays a banjo in a suit and tie? Steve Martin does. (Who else would, really?) Well maybe not always in a suit and tie, but yes, he does play the banjo. Quite well, in fact, as evidenced by his new album, The Crow, ranked at the top of the Bluegrass chart. The suit and tie was more a formality (literally) of a benefit concert for the Los Angeles Public Library, which he played at the Club Nokia theater downtown L.A. on May 11. He shared the bill with the brilliant North Carolina bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers and later shared the stage with his old friend John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The show opened with an interview (turned battle of the wits) conducted by humorist Dave Barry.
Although the concert flirted with stand-up comedy, Mr. Martin is a serious banjo player. And yet he doesn’t take himself too seriously. On more than one occasion, he mocked himself for his lack of skills with the microphone (and even necessitated being rescued by a technical director). “It’s still the amateur night for me,” he reasoned, “It didn’t cost that much to get in.”
Typically in bluegrass music, the sense of play far outweighs the sense of order. Yet this was not the case on stage at Club Nokia, where it felt as though these bluegrass boys were playing by the rules: focused and serious with no time for knee-slapping or hooting and hollering. The audience was equally well mannered, seated as if at a classical recital rather than a toe-tapping celebration of life. Martin left the stage for two songs, allowing the Carolina boys two songs on their own, at which point they flocked to a cluster around the microphone and played with the real charm and energy of a bluegrass jam band.
Most of the songs were from Martin’s new album, one written decades ago while living in Aspen and, admittedly, “probably high” (“Pitkin County Turnaround”); one within the last few years while on vacation in the Caribbean (“I have $35,000 invested in this song” he proclaimed). Most were instrumental, as he acknowledged his shortcomings both in writing lyrics and in singing them. The Steep Canyon Rangers demonstrated their mastery of both of these skills, however, in catchy songs, exhibiting beautiful three part harmony. The result was an amusing contrast between their harmony and Martin’s monotone one line interjections.
The image of a young Steve Martin sitting around, high up in the mountains (pun intended) with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (and maybe Jack and Hunter and other notorious Aspen locals) is striking. It feels truer not only to the essence of the music, but also to Martin himself, than this dressed-up version that seemed desperate to free itself of the suit that just doesn’t fit.