Steve Martin: Blue Glass Superstar?

There is a video on youtube of Steve Martin performing "King Tut" in front on a stadium sized crowed. The video lacks any more decription other than it was filmed in 1979. Occasionally someone will upload the more famous performances of that song from one of his Saturday Night Live appearances. But those videos are pulled down as fast as NBC's lawyers can email Google take down notices.

In many ways, this was image I that was in my head while sitting on the bus last Thursday while on my way to see Martin at the Cadillac Place Theater in Chicago. I have seen videos of him playing banjo on Lettermen, or on Prairie Home Companion. But King Tut was the context. All I could think about was Martin in the goofy "Egyptian" costume leaning back doing an equally goofy dance inspired images painted in tombs in Egypt.

What I got was absolutely not like that performance of King Tut. Which is to say it was exactly like that performance of King Tut. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers came out on stage a few moments after 8:30 and jumped right into the first song. I was immediately blown away by the grace that Martin and his band picked their way through Martin's own compositions. Martin has always been seen as a student of comedy. The depths understanding he has about the craft of telling jokes has ways struck me (see The Jerk for an example of what I am talking about). He clearly has the same attention to detail when it comes banjo and bluegrass.

The songs move between traditional banjo songs (i.e. The Crow and Words Unspoken) and funny tunes banjo songs that only that Steve Martin could write (Wally on the Run and Late for School) These songs hit all of the things one excepts from bluegrass. Solos pass between Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers as the men move back and forth between individual microphones and a large central mic for vocal passages and features.

Between songs, Matin delivers self-effacing quips and one liners about his new career as a Banjo players. Near the beginning of the show he said "People ask me: Why as music career, and why now. To that I say: Hey! you guys are my band." But really the joke is on us. Martin might not be as good as his backers, but he holds his own. When the music calls for it, he stands back and lets the other musicians time the shine. For Martin, there is not a vanity project. It is about playing some good music and entertaining people.

The night ended with an a blistering rendition of Orange Blossom Special (which Martin remembered he had written so it was okay to play) and the very ancient banjo song: King Tut. Now, when I think of Steve Martin, I will think of him leaning into that microphone singing about Funky Tut, his donkey and gift shops.