October 30, 2009 in Features

Steve Martin will mix banjo, laughs at The Fox

By The Spokesman-Review
Associated Press photo

Steve Martin will perform with the Steep Canyon Rangers in Spokane on Monday.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

If you go

Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers

When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, 1001 W. Sprague Ave.

Tickets: Sold out

The versatile Steve Martin

The many talents of Steve Martin:

Stand-up comic – winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Actor – winner of two Best Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics

Screenwriter – winner of a Best Screenplay award from the Writer’s Guild of America

Playwright – author of two successful off-Broadway plays

Novelist – author of two acclaimed novels and a memoir

Banjo player – winner of a Grammy (as part of a duet with Earl Scruggs)

It should come as no surprise that Steve Martin has sold out the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox for a show on Monday. He’s one of the most popular comedians and movie stars of his generation.

Here’s the surprise: Martin sold out the Fox for a banjo show. He’ll be doing nothing but picking the five-string.

Although maybe there will be a little bit of comedy.

“Well, between songs, I’m doing sort of, you know, chatter and patter that I enjoy doing,” said Martin, on a conference call last month with reporters. “Maybe one or two of the songs is a little humorous. But mostly, it’s about the music.”

Martin wants to make this abundantly clear: Don’t expect it to be like his ’70s stand-up show, which featured a few banjo interludes strictly for novelty.

This show grew directly out of the success of his CD, “The Crow,” which features Martin and special guests performing his own banjo compositions. It was nominated for several International Bluegrass Music Association awards.

Martin will be front and center, backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers, one of the top bluegrass acts in the country.

“It’s real bluegrass, you know, guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass,” he said. “That’s the instrumentation that Bill Monroe defined in 1945.”

Some of the songs have lyrics and some are instrumentals. One, “Late for School,” features Martin on vocals.

“The song I sing is a comedy talking song – that’s where I rate my singing ability,” said Martin.

He noted that on the CD, he recruited pros like Tim O’Brien, Vince Gill and Dolly Parton to handle the vocals on most of the songs.

Yet Martin takes some justified pride in the fact that, when it comes to the banjo, he can hang in there with the professionals.

He has been playing the banjo since he was 17, inspired by the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and, most of all, Flatt and Scruggs playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (the theme from “Bonnie & Clyde”).

“When I heard the banjo, I was so determined to learn it that there was no stopping – it was a magic moment,” said Martin. “There was no other – the guitar didn’t interest me.”

Once, when he was particularly frustrated with banjo practicing, he remembers saying to himself, “If I just stay with it, one day I’ll have been playing for 40 years.”

That day has come.

“I think that’s good advice to people who get frustrated with instruments,” said Martin. “Just play a little bit every day, and one day you’ll be playing for 40 years, and you’ll be pretty good, you know.”

Now he’s good enough to hold his own with banjo masters like Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck and even Martin’s original inspiration, Earl Scruggs.

Martin noted that many comedians and comedy writers are excellent musicians – Woody Allen on clarinet, Kevin Nealon on guitar and banjo, Christopher Guest on mandolin – but he’s not sure it says anything profound about the creative mind.

“It’s just that, you know, you’re interested in show business,” he said. “That’s the way I think of it. You’ve got a show business angle and you do everything you can. … You just exploit it.”

Martin has already played a number of dates across the country, including Carnegie Hall, so the nervousness factor is already gone.

He said he would be a lot more nervous if he were doing a stand-up comedy show because “a song lasts three minutes and a joke lasts six seconds” – meaning a comedian has many more chances to bomb.

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