Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers at Jones Hall, 7/31/2014
Photos by Jason Wolter
Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers Feat. Edie Brickell & Paul Simon Jones Hall July 31 2014
The Houston Symphony must have enjoyed having the night off Thursday. But helpfully, Steve Martin was there to explain to any subscribers wondering what had happened to their concert hall that "Yo-Yo Ma is off making Cheaper By the Dozen 3."
The Waco-born actor/comedian/author and his Grammy-winning bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers were the symphony's guests for a sold-out evening of music and comedy, and occasional musical comedy; even his attempt to explain the old bluegrass tradition of murder ballads in the encore elicited some laughter. But despite Martin's constant efforts to maneuver the center of attention back onto him one way or another, he wound up being upstaged all over the place - including by one very special guest indeed.
Of course that air of casual, almost unwitting arrogance has become Martin's go-to public persona, and Thursday it was there from the outset. Noting the heavy congestion around Jones Hall before the show, he said, "I haven't caused this kind of a traffic jam since the last time I went jogging in shorts."
The wisecracks flew pretty past during the opening part of the program, all of them said in Martin's signature tone that's like "how do you not know that already?" - and extended to his "contractually obligated" introduction of the other Rangers. Martin would introduce the player, then either cut him off or cut him down with another barb, with the recipient perhaps not feeling as sheepish as he let on.
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That kind of comedy spilled into a few of Thursday's songs, if not as many as you might think. Martin described "Jubliation Day" as about a "happy breakup," each line was another zinger on the order of "let's remember the good times...like when you were out of town."
But for all his talk, Martin fit in quite comfortably with his North Carolina-based bandmates. (Despite his earlier assertion, no doubt he met them elsewhere besides bluegrassmingle.com.) Musically, Martin is an adept banjo player but far from a show-off, anchoring the songs with simple chord patterns and his fair share of picking. Overall, though he seamlessly blended into the ensemble and would easily bow to his bandmates when it came time for a spotlight-grabbing solo. Fiddle player Nicky Sanders in particular drew heavy applause several times, perhaps most of all during "Auden's Train" in the encore, where he dropped in bits of War's "Low Rider" and the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" between long pulls of his bow that simulated a train whistle.
And surely frustrating Martin even more, the onetime wild and crazy guy faded even further into the background once he brought Edie Brickell out. The Dallas-bred singer dominated the evening's middle section with her warm, husky alto on tunes like the wistful "When You Get to Asheville" and the Grammy-winning title song to last year's album Love Has Come For You, which sounded deeply haunted with restless spirits. Brickell has plenty of wit of her own too, as she put forth when introducing "Tell Me She Didn't" with an extended tale of her eccentric family in northeast Texas.
"I thought I sent Edie a happy little banjo tune, and she sent back a song about suicide," Martin quipped.
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Indeed, if Brickell were to take the Rangers out on her own, they would no doubt do quite well at festivals like Telluride. But following the pretty "Sun's Gonna Shine," as offhandedly as he said anything else all evening, Martin mentioned that Brickell's husband, Paul Simon, happened to be backstage and brought him out. Stealing a page from Martin's book by greeting the audience with "that section didn't stand," Simon joined Brickell for a high-spirited version of Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn's "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" and lovely turn around the dance floor with Ernest Tubb's "Waltz Across Texas."
Certainly it was hard to believe that just a few weeks ago the couple was in court facing disorderly-conduct charges (which were ultimately dropped) stemming from a disagreement that got a little out of hand at their Connecticut home back in April. If Martin decides to make Cheaper By the Dozen 3 after all, surely Simon and Brickell can borrow the Rangers for a summer with no problem. They might have a little trouble getting them back.
But when it came down to it, as he would surely tell you himself, Thursday was Martin's show after all. Before Brickell came out, he reminded the audience that he had only been regularly performing with a band for the past five years or so. Again, he seemed to asking the audience for sympathy he didn't need in the least.
"I went to see Eric Clapton a few weeks ago," Martin said. "I thought to myself, 'Hmmm...he's not so funny."
Personal Bias: Steve Martin for governor.
The Crowd: Symphony folk mixed in with certain discerning late thirtysomethings and a few younger kids.
Overheard In the Crowd: "He vaguely looks like Roy Clark."
Random Notebook Dump: It takes a celebrity to get this many people out to see bluegrass, but the music has no trouble keeping them here.
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