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With Steve Martin, it's all banter and bluegrass
Funnyman Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers will be playing Sunday at Virginia Tech's Burruss Auditorium.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers were nominated for a Grammy Award for their collaboration on “Rare Bird Alert.” Martin and the Rangers each have also won individual Grammys.
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Onstage banter is a big part of bluegrass music tradition. Some of it is corn pone . Some of it is downright funny. Some of it is just awful.
Steep Canyon Rangers used to do a lot of it - until the band started touring with comedian-turned-actor-turned-Renaissance-man Steve Martin. Martin, a serious banjo player and songwriter, really knows how to crack up crowds from stages.
"We used to try to be funny in between songs and have jokes," Steep Canyon Rangers lead singer and guitarist Woody Platt, 35, said. "And after working with Steve and seeing how you do it correctly and how you can really be funny in a unique way, we've gone out on our tours and just kind of backed off all the jokes."
That doesn't mean that the Rangers will be onstage wallflowers when they back up Martin on Sunday at Virginia Tech's Burruss Auditorium.
"We're not comedians by any stretch of the imagination, but we kind of get roped into some of that stuff," Platt said in a Feb. 22 phone call from Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y. "It's all fun, and there's bits, and there's improv and a lot of music.
"The main thing is that the music is taken very seriously. But the banter, which in bluegrass is a real common thing ... is just some of the best banter that you could ever want, because Steve is such a great comedian and so good with an audience.
"And we've learned a lot from watching him work an audience. It's been a really great experience for the Steep Canyon Rangers."
Expect lots of music from "Rare Bird Alert," the Grammy-nominated album that Martin did with the western North Carolina-based Rangers, and from Martin's Grammy-winning album, "The Crow."
Earlier this month, the Rangers won its own Grammy, taking the bluegrass album category with last year's "Nobody Knows You." The Rangers were up against Dailey & Vincent, The Grascals, Noam Pikelny (of Punch Brothers) and Special Consensus.
"It was kind of like time was standing still," Platt said of the moment when presenters called the band's name. "We had to sit through 45 other awards at the pre-telecast. It was kind of like, you know, shocking, and when they called our name out, I think we all just sat there for a second and didn't realize it was our name.
"But what an honor for us, to have that kind of company with all those great bands, and to be in L.A., and to be able to call ourselves Grammy winners. So we're thrilled."
Coincidentally, the band headed almost immediately to Woodstock, to record an album that Platt hopes will be out by Labor Day.
He said he couldn't tell yet exactly how the new disc will turn out, but the band is already pushing a bit against tradition. The sessions so far have included drummer Jeff Sipe, a fellow resident with Platt of Brevard, N.C.
Sipe brought his high-octane, jazz-rock trio to Martin's Downtown Bar & Grill on Feb. 16, but his resume also includes several runs with jam-grassers Leftover Salmon.
"Jeff's a great talent and we know him really well, so we just thought, Levon's drum kit is up here, and why don't we just try to incorporate some of that into the music," Platt said.
"Drums have been a part of bluegrass on and off for a long time. Lots of people say there's no drums, but they've been in there, you know - Jimmy Martin [a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association Bluegrass Hall of Fame] and [Grand Ole Opry members] the Osborne Brothers.
"It's cool. It's helped drive the music, but it's also kind of changed the way we play a little bit. And you know, we're really just making the music we want to make right now, and it's been fun to feel the freedom to be able to experiment with that kind of thing. "
Wild, crazy & talented
Martin, 67, exploded on the national scene in the 1970s as a stand-up comic. He parlayed his arrow-through-the-head, "wild and crazy guy," banjo-plucking, "King Tut"-singing persona into movie stardom ("The Jerk," "Three Amigos," "Roxanne," "Parenthood," "Father of the Bride," "The Spanish Prisoner," "It's Complicated").
Meanwhile, Martin was writing well-received books such as the novellas "Shopgirl" and "The Pleasure of My Company," "Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Other Plays," the memoir "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" and "Object of Beauty: A Novel."
His banjo playing, legitimate even in the days when it appeared as a comic prop, spans both the Earl Scruggs-pioneered, three-finger style and the old-timey clawhammer technique.
That resume brings plenty of people who are hoping that the comedian version of Martin will rehash some of the old gags.
"There's lot of people that have been following his career for 30 years and expect to hear some of his 'happy feet' jokes and expect him to have an arrow through his head," Platt said. " And there of course are the bluegrass fans that just want to hear him play banjo. Then there's our fans. Then there's the people that have just seen him in the movies.
"All I can say is that Steve really seems to like to be in the present. He's so creative. I've yet to see him kind of want to do tribute stuff from his past."
But Martin does sprinkle in the occasional call back . For example, "Rare Bird Alert" closed with a live version of "King Tut" - a top 20 pop hit for Martin in 1978 - played bluegrass-style.
"He'll write a song and we'll play it for six months, then he'll write another song and be ready to put that one in and ditch the other one," Platt said. "The fact that we did 'King Tut' on the record was even a surprise to all of us.
"Some of his fans that have been around for a long time, I think they're kind of hoping to hear it or waiting for it. And then other folks are just hanging on every note.
"But in the end, everybody gets kind of what they came for and more, I think."
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