Even Steve Martin realizes it is a bit strange to expect an audience to come out to hear a great comedian play the banjo.
“The only equivalent,” the 67-year-old actor, comedian, writer and now banjo-playing bluegrass musician said, “is if your wife looks in the paper and says, ‘Oh, Louis C.K. has written some original songs for the harmonica; that seems like a must-see.’”
But much to the delight of a very large crowd at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, Martin proved to be nearly as talented with a banjo as he is with a joke. Add in great musical and vocal support from the Steep Canyon Rangers, a five-piece progressive bluegrass band, and the lyrics and voice of Edie Brickell, and it made for one wildly entertaining evening.
Martin made a joke about being referred to as a “Renaissance man,” but — think about it — he is. Not many other successful entertainers have branched out into as many different fields as Martin, or have been nearly as successful in all of the various pursuits.
And Brickell still sounds as lovely today as she did 25 years ago on her breakthrough album, 1988’s “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars” (as the leader of the New Bohemians, with songs such as “What I Am” and “Circle”).
Early in Tuesday’s show, Martin made mention of the incident from earlier in the day in which a man in Wilkes-Barre returned the comedian’s wallet, which Martin said he hadn’t even realized he had lost.
“Apparently that made the news,” he said. “Now that’s a slow news day.”
“So thank you, Wilkes-Barre. My impression of Wilkes-Barre is everyone is 100 percent honest all the time,” he said to a rousing ovation.
Tuesday’s repertoire was mostly from Martin and Brickell’s recent collaboration, “Love Has Come For You,” which is still at the top of the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart more than two months after its release. That collection, by the way, is Martin’s third consecutive chart-topper (following 2009’s “The Crow” and 2011’s “Red Bird Alert”) since he turned his attention to music full time.
Martin said he has been playing banjo for more than 50 years, and it showed on Tuesday as he ably kept up with the fine musicians and vocalists of the Steep Canyon Rangers – Woody Platt (acoustic guitar), Graham Sharp (banjo), Mike Guggino (mandolin), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle).
“But I have only been playing on stage for about four years,” he told the crowd. “Some nights, I play great. Others, I am only just fine, and I wish I did better.
“I went to see Eric Clapton play the other night,” he continued. “And (he paused for effect), he’s just not that funny.”
The Rangers, Martin said, are not his backing band, but rather, “I am their celebrity.” They may not be as famous as the man at center stage, but the quintet played and sang exquisitely all evening long, especially on their two-song showcase in the middle of the set. First they did an instrumental number which spotlighted each member to great effect, then followed it up with some close harmony on an a cappella spiritual number.
When Martin returned to the stage, he joined them for an amusing little ditty called “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” one of only a small handful of songs performed Tuesday that showcased both the comedy and musicality at the same time.
Highlights of the joint numbers with Brickell included a lovely rendition of “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby,” a train song that tells the true story of a baby found in a suitcase by a Civil War veteran, and the album’s opening number, “When You Get to Asheville.”
Fiddler Sanders brought the crowd to its feet with a second train tune at the end of the set proper. Then the musicians returned to the stage for a three-song encore, including “Remember Me This Way,” a tune that fittingly brought the evening to a close.