Monday, March 11, 2013

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers

"It's long been a dream of mine to play bluegrass music at Virginia Tech, and tonight I think I'm one step closer to that goal." -Steve Martin

Shock and confusion were in abundance two Friday's ago as my normal pre-road trip ritual of feet-dragging and groggy packing played themselves out in my room.

I was headed back to Blacksburg for a weekend to take in the final men's basketball home game of the season, and unexpectedly I stumbled into a bluegrass concert.

A member of my legal defense team sent a frantic—at least I read them it in that voice—text message that said, "Dude Steve Martin and the steep canyon rangers are at Burruss Sunday".

A quick Google search confirmed that legendary comedian and noted banjo picker Steve Martin was coming to Blacksburg and there were still tickets available, which made very little sense to both of us.

"You missed out on seeing THIS live? HAHAHAHA!"

After giving the go ahead to purchase a block of seats, I spent all weekend cursing "kids these days" and railing against some vague and vengeful "youth" that had no respect for proper art.

In reality, the reason for extra tickets was likely that it was for a bluegrass show in a college town, but that didn't slow my whimsical denunciations of "millenials"—and yes, I came to realize that technically I'm a part of that increasingly narcissistic group, but why can't they be more like ME?!

Anyway, I've long been a fan of Steve's comedy and I've been aware of his banjo abilities since, as a child, I uncovered his 1977 comedy album, Let's Get Small, hidden in a box of old cassette tapes.

I'd argue having that tape during my formative years explains a lot of my deadpan style and penchant for sarcasm. Also, I've seen a banjo on television.

"I'm not into the drug scene or the booze scene or the dope scene, I'm not into that. And I think people who are should be taken out and maimed."

His delivery and style are truly unique, "Tonight I'll be the guy up here in the red suit." He told us during his introduction. 

Make no mistake this was a music concert, but it was hilarious too. 

The Steep Canyon Rangers are fresh off their win for Best Bluegrass Album at the Grammy's and they play along with the gags in between demonstrating their musical chops. 

At one point, Martin claimed he and the band had agreed the day they met that the moment it all stopped being fun they'd quit. The band then all set down their instruments and walked off stage leaving Steve to play a couple songs alone.

He had a total of five banjos on stage which he played off as an "ego thing". He then explained that he thinks of his banjos like his children, "which means that one of them probably isn't mine."

We were all particularly impressed with the talents of Nicky Sanders on fiddle and harmony vocals. In fact the entire group, Charles R. Humphrey III (bass, harmony vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin, harmony vocals), Graham Sharp (banjo, harmony vocals) and Woody Platt (guitar, lead vocals) are all terrific singers and their voices blend beautifully.

Woody Platt is straight from central casting for a country singer, a fact he's ribbed about from Mr. Martin. He just sounds like he should record the vocals for everything coming out of Nashville. 

The best example of the group's vocal prowess is, "I Can't Sit Down", an a cappella number about arriving in Heaven that leads into the much funnier, "Athiests Don't Have No Songs".

The latter provided a subtle yet impressive feat. During the last refrain when Steve is screaming, the other four guys actually harmonize with his off-putting pitch to form something quite pleasant. Steve held his note a bit longer in person so the effect was a bit more dramatic, but it's still awesome.

Finally, an expansive tune called "Auden's Train" handled the encore in a big way.

Martin wrote this song as a tribute to poet W.H. Auden and like the title, it winds and weaves its way punctuated by the long wail of the fiddle. 

Sanders stretches his legs on this one, referencing such classic works as The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and The Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" and doing it in a manic style that brought everyone to their feet.   

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