Steve Martin leaves sold-out Riverside Theater in awe, stitches
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When Steve Martin returned to Milwaukee to play the Riverside Theater Wednesday night with the Steep Canyon Rangers, he decided to leave out his classic SNL chestnut “King Tut.” Perhaps it was an off night for the song, but more likely Martin is too invested in the here and now and excited by the musicians he’s playing with to use one of the set list spots for that song. Since his reinvention as a working musician four years ago (it’s been almost 50 since he started playing banjo as a hobby), Martin has seemingly been reinvigorated by playing live with the Steep Canyon Rangers, and, this year, Edie Brickell.
With that being said, Steve Martin is still very much a wild and crazy guy. Whether it was through songs like his witty anti-heartbreak song “Jubilation Day” or humorous song intros and stage banter poking fun at his bandmates, Martin kept the crowd roaring with laughter in the moments they weren’t in awe of the eclectic playing and singing on display throughout the night.
“Close your eyes and enjoy the banjo taking you to the scary parts of Kentucky,” Martin said prior to one of the band’s instrumental songs. Martin’s playing is not overly flashy, but he can hold his own plucking away at the banjo. With fiddle, a second banjo, upright bass, guitar, mandolin, and other instruments, he and the Steep Canyon Rangers (and Brickell) created lush, intricate bluegrass songs oozing with beauty. Throughout the show, each member got plenty of chances to show off. Steep Canyon Rangers member Nicky Sanders provided a number of those moments with his fiddle playing, a few times wandering off into other songs. Mike Guggino jumped between several instruments, but mostly played mandolin and lent his voice to a number of songs. Graham Sharp, who Martin jokingly referred to as the “sixth banjo player,” worked in tandem with Martin’s banjo, adding a double dose of the instrument. Charles R. Humphrey III provided solid bass grooves, and Mike Ashworth, who subbed for guitarist Woody Platt, did a great job filling the temporary void.
While it’s safe to say that no one ran away with the show, unlike Martin’s previous visit, the presence of Edie Brickell took things to a new level. Brickell is best known for her work with the New Bohemians (and for being married to Paul Simon), though this year she and Martin released the amazingly beautiful Love Has Come For You. The show’s set was divided between Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Rare Bird Alert, Martin’s The Crow, and many of the songs from the Brickell collaboration. Brickell explained the inspiration for a number of songs including “Yes She Did,” a song based on her grandmother and gossip. One of the highlights was a new song called “Pretty Little One,” a murder ballad with Brickell and Martin swapping vocals for different characters. Another highlight was “I Can’t Sit Down,” done a cappella with just the members of the Steep Canyon Rangers. “When you learn your instruments, you’re going to be great,” Martin joked.
Martin explained later in the show that there are two styles of banjo, one that’s melancholy, and another that’s faster. Throughout the show, Martin and company shifted gears between funny and serious, enjoying each moment. It was truly the best of both worlds.
Random Steve Martin quotes and jokes:
• “I’m performing for your cell phones.”
• On the Riverside posting about the show selling out: “That’s rude.”
• “We’re going to start with the first song.”
• “I’m the one in white pants.”
• On meeting the Steep Canyon Rangers at a party in North Carolina: “The Hollywood version would be rehab.”
• On there being four banjos set up on stage: “Banjos are like children: one is not mine.”
• “The downside to having no drum is no pot.”
• On playing banjo in a live band and fitting in: “I saw Eric Clapton recently and he was not funny.”
• “If you didn’t like show, look at yourself in mirror and ask, ‘How did I contribute as audience member?’”