Steve Martin’s made a remarkable transition in recent years. Once known as the chaotic goofball who donned a fake arrow through the head, serenaded under the guise of King Tut and uttered the dopey exclamation “Excuuuuuuuuse me,” it always seemed somewhat impossible to assume that he would ever be taken seriously. Never mind the fact that he’s one of America’s most iconic comedians and that his numerous film credits have earned him a solid standing in Hollywood and throughout the rest of the world. For the most part, it’s his silly schtick that sticks, forever branding him as a crazy comic who will do just about anything to get a laugh.
Consequently, we can now credit Martin with accomplishing something entirely unexpected, that is, to gain new respectability — and a viable parallel career — as an astute musician who needn’t count on his comedic skills alone to get attention. Not that’s he’s refrained from being a funny man, but thanks to his banjo playing prowess and a determination to make some memorable music, he’s finding a second life as a performer of remarkable repute. It began when he chose the Steep Canyon Rangers as his back-up band, both in the studio and onstage, and then elevated even more when he branched out and struck up a partnership with singer Edie Brickell. The pair’s utterly engaging debut, 2013‘s Love Has Come for You took many fans by surprise, given its emphasis on serious intent and romantic reciprocity. Now, with Martin’s Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in tow, the duo cap that achievement with So Familiar, a follow-up that’s every bit as charming and melodious as their first. It goes a long way to prove that Martin’s instrumental intentions aren’t fleeting and that his musical triumph was no mere fluke. In effect, there are now two Steve Martins — the wacky, wisecracking comedian and the heads-down, no-nonsense musician.
While So Familiar finds Martin and Brickell enlisting an A list cast of musical supporters — the Steep Canyon Rangers, fellow banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, bassist Leland Sklar and producer Peter Asher all offer assistance — the real accomplishment comes via the bond the pair have established between themselves. Indeed, the most winsome tunes — “So Familiar”, “Always Will”, “I’m By Your Side” and “My Baby — find Martin and Brickell effecting their mellow mood with only the barest accompaniment, putting the sentiment across all on their own. Likewise, the assertive strains of “Won’t Go Back” and the plucky “Mine All Mine” provide the album with additional standouts, two solid offerings that resonate long after the final notes fade away. By now that familiarity factor is well established, and if Martin does ever decide to give up his day job, it’s likely he’s find a warm welcome in the musical mainstream.