Jacob Zinn :: journalist + photographer

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers bring toe-tappin’ hoe down

The RunnerOnline Edition: July 29, 2011 | Print Edition: Volume 3, Issue 23

We couldn’t wipe the plucking dumbass smiles off our rosey plucking cheeks.

That’s because Steve Martin was making us laugh so hard between songs with the Steep Canyon Rangers on Tuesday night. Martin and the band played their Old South bluegrass under the Northern Lights of the Centre in Vancouver.

There’s a downside to travelling with no drummer. No pot.

Steve Martin

“Oh, now I wish I had practiced,” said Martin as he and the North Carolina quintet took the stage to applause. They have been touring the United States and Canada on their 2011 collaboration, Rare Bird Alert, and this was the first time in 35 years that Martin had been back to our city.

The theatre was surprisingly unfilled; every seat was taken in the orchestra, but the dress circle and balcony were half-full at best.

Martin, dressed in a white suit-jacket, was finger-picking good. He plucked the living twang out of his five-string banjo during the opening number, “Pitkin County Turnaround,” as though we were at a toe-tapping hoedown.

They followed with two more instrumentals before acoustic guitarist Woody Platt sang “Daddy Played the Banjo” off of Martin’s 2009 solo album, The Crow. Platt’s vocals (a cross between Joe Nichols and Dierks Bentley) were so velvety, he could have smooth-talked any woman into coming home with him.

The other band members included Graham Sharp on second banjo, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Charles Humphrey on stand-up bass and Nicky Sanders on fiddle. The stage full of stringed instruments left little room, and no need, for a percussionist.

“There’s a downside to travelling with no drummer,” said Martin. “No pot.”

The band shared vocal duties on “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” and “Jubilation Day,” which featured a yee-haw-worthy banjo solo by Sharp. Then, on “I Can’t Sit Down,” the band layered their vocals into the chorus until reaching harmony, holding long notes and cutting them off on cue.

The six of them sang a cappella around one microphone for “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” the most comedic tune of the evening. In short, the song points out that while non-believers don’t have hymns or church services, they do get to watch Sunday football in their underwear.

After two more instrumentals (“The Great Remember” and “Hide Behind a Rock”), they performed “Wally on the Run,” a song written about Martin’s playful dog. Toward the end of the song, Wally, a golden retriever, walked onstage and the crowd delighted as Martin gave him a treat.

Platt led the vocals of “Yellow-Backed Fly” and “Me and Paul Revere” before they left the stage, only to return less than two minutes later for the encore, featuring a softer song titled “You.”

They closed the concert with the 1930s fiddle tune, “Orange Blossom Special,” during which fiddler Sanders weaved in the melodies of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” the theme song to The Simpsons and at least four other distinct musical pieces.

Throughout the night, Martin proved he hadn’t lost his sense of humour, but the absence of his 1978 novelty song, “King Tut” was a letdown for any ‘70s Saturday Night Live viewer, considering he and the Steep Canyon Rangers recorded a bluegrass version of it for their album. He even referenced the song earlier in the night, which only built anticipation.

“I know you want to hear it, okay,” he said before quoting Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” The audience laughed, but fell silent rather quickly.

“Maybe that wasn’t a hit up here.”

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