Live Review: Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers @ DPAC 5/21/11

Promo picture for Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers show at DPAC 5/21/11
Promo picture for Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers show at DPAC 5/21/11

“Tonight I get to do 2 of my favorite things, comedy and charging people money for music.” – Steve Martin on stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center last Saturday night.

One of the warmest audience receptions I’ve ever heard greeted Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers when they walked onto the stage at DPAC last Saturday evening. “Thank you and good night,” Martin quipped.

Martin backed by the 5 man bluegrass band, who hail from North Carolina, launched into a sprightly instrumental called “Pitkin County Turnaround.”

The song was off Martin’s 2009 album “The Crow: New Songs For The 5-String Banjo,” which was his first full length disc as a musician (his 1981 release “The Steve Martin Brothers” featured a side that was banjo recordings).

It was a great opener as Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers smoked. The sold-out house definitely agreed. While he and band tuned between songs, Martin joked in his inimitable style that was a joy to behold as he had said 30 years ago that he was retiring from stand-up.

While the evening was about music, there was plenty of comedy – sometimes in the songs themselves like the new crowd pleaser “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” off Martin’s 2011 disc “Rare Bird Alert.”

The 22 song set was full of pleasers like “Daddy Played The Banjo,” “Jubilation Day” (one of the happiest break-up songs ever), and the Steep Canyon Rangers’ “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back.”

After Charles R. Humphrey III produced a beer from inside his stand-up bass for him, Martin took a break and the Rangers played a few songs of their own including a great vocal rendition of Wade Mainer’s “I Can’t Sit Down.”

Their harmony vocals were astounding on the acapella gospel number. When he returned Martin remarked that he was looking forward to them working up an arrangement for it on their instruments.

The band also including Mike Guggino on mandolin, Woody Platt on guitar, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, and Graham Sharp who was the second banjo player onstage after Martin, often took part in Martin’s comic routines.

They also provided strong back-up vocals on the rousing encore closer “King Tut,” probably the best known song of the evening. With a new but still familiar arrangement, the song, which was Martin’s only hit (it reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100), though he joked earlier in the evening that his hit was “Candle in the Wind.”

His white suit, his hilarious delivery, and “King Tut” were among the only similarities to the Steve Martin performances of the late ‘70s, although the banjo was always part of the act.

Martin’s no longer a wild and crazy guy, with bunny ears and arrow-through-the-head gear, but he hasn’t been that for a long time. Considering his successful film career, his books, his plays, and now his acclaimed music, the man is a true renaissance man.

He’s also an amazing entertainer, and armed with a great band, who can put on a show that’s as funny as it is a toe-tapping good time. Don’t miss Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers if they come through the area again. I know I won’t.

BTW: The Steep Canyon Rangers will be doing a free show sans Steve Martin at American Tobacco’s “Music on the Lawn” Concert Series in downtown Durham on June 1oth at 6 PM.

By Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson is a Raleigh based writer whose work has appeared in the Indpendent, Chapel Hill News, and has been featured many times on the IMDb Hit List. Daniel writes prolifically about the world of pop culture mainly focusing on film.