Renaissance Banjo Man
Type the words “Steve Martin Renaissance Man” into Google and you will get “about 1,440,000” results, a perhaps unsurprising figure when you consider what Martin has accomplished in his 40-plus years in showbiz. He won his first Emmy Award in 1969, as a writer for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. He won back-to-back Grammys for Best Comedy Album in 1978 and 1979, and has won two more for his bluegrass banjo work in the last decade. He has hosted “Saturday Night Live” a record fourteen times, and has hosted the Academy Awards three times as well. He has won a Mark Twain Award, Kennedy Center Honors, and a trophy as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year. He has written two critically acclaimed plays and three bestselling novels. All this, of course, is in addition to his principal career as one of Hollywood’s most bankable comic leading men, starring in more than 30 movies, many of which (including the classics Roxanne, L.A. Story, and Bowfinger) he wrote himself.
But, as Martin was quick to point out between songs during a recent bluegrass concert at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre, “It’s funny how, when people call me a Renaissance Man, they usually leave out the one thing that most makes me a Renaissance Man: I’m carrying bubonic plague”. Corny? Yes. But that has always been one of Martin’s great talents: delivering ridiculous shtick in such a way that you know he knows how ridiculous it is. Suffice to say that no one does the oblivious, self-absorbed boob with more a delicious sense of sly self-awareness than Steve Martin. And one of the great joys of his show at the Granada—or, as he called it, “the Santa Barbara Theatre in beautiful Granada”—was that, contrary to expectations, Steve Martin the comedian was very much present at Steve Martin the bluegrass musician’s show. And that made for not just a great evening of music, but for one of the most entertaining shows in recent memory.
Martin has been doing this bluegrass thing for a long time. He released his first banjo album, The Crow, in 2009, when he was already 63 years old, but he first learned to play the instrument when he was seventeen, and he routinely featured it in his comedy act in the 1970s. In fact, he is a really good banjo player. (As he himself put it, “I’m just another Hollywood dilettante jumping on the bluegrass gravy train”.) He is also a fine bluegrass composer, and wrote almost all the material on The Crow and last year’s follow-up album. Rare Bird Alert. With the band the Steep Canyon Rangers backing him, Martin could play any bluegrass festival in the country in disguise, and no one watching the show would be any the wiser: they’d think he was just another fast-fingered string-picker. But as good as he is at playing the banjo, Martin is an even better at between-song patter: to use a banjo player analogy, it is fair to say that he is the Earl Scruggs of bluegrass concert hosts.
Because Martin’s delivery is such an essential part of his comedy, I don’t know if these jokes will translate, but here are a few just to give you the flavor:
“I came into town and saw a giant picture of my face with the words ‘Sold Out’ plastered across it. I thought, ‘How rude!’”.
“While I was offstage, I went to the bathroom. There’s a sign in there that says, ‘Employees must wash hands before leaving bathroom’. (Shaking his head.) I thought, I’m glad I’m not an employee”.
“I wanted to honor Flatt and Scruggs by playing a banjo and fiddle duet. But I didn’t want to honor them by paying royalties, so I wrote this song”.
“Recently, I had the chance to play for the President of the United States. I’ll tell you, that had to be one of the greatest thrills of his life”.
As for the music, it was mostly fast, fun, and, when it included vocals, witty. Martin himself sang only a few numbers, leaving most of the vocal duties to the members of the Steep Canyon Rangers. (“I don’t like to think of them as my band. I like to think of myself as their celebrity”.) Among the songs Martin sang were the comical anti-hymn “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” and the cheerful breakup number “Jubilation Day”, as well as an ironic new murder ballad, “Pretty Little One”, which Martin said they were playing for the first time. The musical highpoint of the evening, however, came on one of the show’s rare melancholy tunes, “The Great Remember”, a solo instrumental number on which Martin showed off his expert claw-hammer technique.
Introducing that song, Martin told the audience, “I’m doing two of my favorite things right now: comedy, and charging people to hear music”. Judging from the audience reaction, it was certainly money well spent. In the men’s room of a restaurant several blocks away after the show, a stranger approached me and said, “Were you at the Steve Martin show?” When I responded in the affirmative, he said, “Wasn’t that fabulous?”. Yes, I conceded, it was. And then we both washed our hands.