[16 April 2014]
Reviewing a live album is always a bit tricky. Do you review the songs as you would any other album? Do you critique the creativity of the lyrics, the technical skill of the players, the arrangement, etc.? Or do you review the “liveness”: the sound quality of the live recording, the banter, and the song selection?
Regardless of the approach I took while listening to the newly-released Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell album, Live, the outcome was wholly positive.
Having seen Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers in concert, I had some expectations for their live record. Thankfully, the recording, taped at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside, California, is clean and well done. The song selection for the concert was spot on, alternating between ballads, instrumentals, a cappella numbers, and upbeat foot-stomping bluegrass tunes. Needless to say, the performance quality of these musicians was stellar and, due to fantastic mixing, each instrument is clear and balanced on the release. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers handle the uptempo tunes wonderfully. “Jubiliation Day” is the perfect example of how bluegrass music can lend itself as a backdrop for songs with comedic flare. The song, we discover from the DVD, is about breaking up with someone that you are happy to be rid of. Live is also made better due to the fact that a DVD of the performance is included for your visual and continued aural pleasure.
I wondered how Steve Martin’s comedic interludes would sound on an album, if they even appeared at all. In what I believe was a smart move, a lot of the talk is omitted from the CD. While I love Steve Martin’s witty repartee, it would have been a detriment to the overall flow of the album. However, if Martin’s quips are part of the draw of his live performance with the Steep Canyon Rangers, the DVD comes through, offering additional songs and much of the Steve Martin humor that the CD lacks. On the DVD, Martin reveals how Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers came to be, the history of many of the songs, and shares some personal stories about his love of the banjo and bluegrass. If you like context (as I do), you will love the Live DVD and the insight it gives.
The appearance of Martin’s writing partner Edie Brickell at this particular concert and presence on this album was a stroke of pure genius. It is songs like the aforementioned “Jubiliation Day” that make Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers so enjoyable live. However, an entire album of clever songs in traditional bluegrass fashion would be monotonous to say the least. This is where Edie Brickell comes in.
In addition to personal stories on how she wrote the lyrics for some of the featured songs, Brickell imparts a grace and tenderness to Live. Once she joins the men on stage, there is a quicker flow to the performance—less Steve Martin and more music—which may be a pro to some and a con to others. Brickell’s singing voice has a quality that is almost conversational. It is as if she is whispering a secret with each lyric. Her voice and the lesser amount of time spent chatting between songs allow for her contribution to be both professional and personal. I had not had the pleasure of seeing her perform with these gentlemen until this live DVD and I must say that her inclusion makes the concert as a whole more nuanced and balanced.
For those of you that do not have time or desire for the DVD and all its little extras, the CD is a worthwhile venture on its own. With over 19 songs, Live has over an hour of the best tunes from Martin’s The Crow (2009), Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers’ Rare Bird Alert(2011), and Martin and Brickell’s Love Has Come For You(2013), as well as songs from Steep Canyon Rangers’ latest album Tell the Ones I Love (2013).
If you are looking for a more bluesy, less bluegrassy song, give “Hunger” by the Steep Canyon Rangers a listen. If you are all about the narrative, “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby” and “Love Has Come For You”, both of which are beautifully sung by Brickell, is right up your alley. “Daddy Played the Banjo” is considered by its soulful singer Woody Platt of the Steep Canyon Rangers to be the anthem of the show and is a great pickin’ tune to conclude the CD on. If you can only listen to one song, and you love Steve Martin’s sense of humor, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” is that song. The solid harmonies sung a cappella mixed with the satirical lyrics leaves me cracking up each time I hear it. Lastly, if you can listen to the CD’s first track, “Katie Mae”, and not get it stuck in your head, you are a stronger-willed person than I. Its upbeat tempo, harmonies, and classic bluegrass sound make it the ideal introductory song for this album. It sets the tone for this high energy, talent-packed live performance.
Steve Martin jokes early on during the taping that most people must be thinking “Oh, there’s Steve Martin… just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” Now, while we all know that this is not the case (for many reasons, namely “bluegrass gravy train” could be considered an oxymoron), it reminds us that Steve Martin performs bluegrass because he loves the music and he loves the banjo. This love is apparent during his concerts and is captured on Live, along with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell’s shared passion for the genre and performing. Live is a great example of live recording done well, both technically and creatively, and offers a fun and easy escape to a concert without leaving the comfort of your own home.