I remember as a kid, the first time I played “Let’s Get Small,” listening with astonishment as Steve Martin picked the strings of a banjo in the album’s opening moments.
When I heard the album start with him playing the instrument, I thought, “What!?”
It seemed so out of place, needless, and surprising to hear the twang of a banjo on an album that was supposed to be a live stand-up show. But then Martin sang the tune, “Ramblin’ Guy,” with the line, “R-A-M-B-L-I-N, apostrophe, oh ramblin’!”
Hey, I’m a ramblin’ guy, still.
Martin really loves playing the banjo. He seems to still enjoy making people laugh, too, using the instrument as a comic prop and a means to entertain musically. Martin made his second trip to Las Vegas on Wednesday night with the Steep Canyon Rangers bluegrass band.
That Martin and his touring band sold out the 2,050-seat Smith Center for the Performing Arts speaks more of Martin’s popularity as a comic performer than as a banjo artist. A booking of the Steep Canyon Rangers without Martin would probably be better suited for Cabaret Jazz, and I’m sure there were folks in the audience who read the listing and thought the Steep Canyon Rangers were Martin’s opening act.
That isn’t to say the band is anything but terrific, only that bluegrass is an easier sell in Las Vegas with Steve Martin at the front of the act than without. Martin was clearly pleased to sell out the venue on a midweek night. He made a joke about ticket sales, which was at once self-effacing and congratulatory. “I saw a photo in the paper of me with the words ‘Sold Out’ across the front. I thought, ‘How rude.’ ”
The show was mostly the same succession of songs and jokes Martin rolled out in April of last year when he made his Las Vegas bluegrass debut at the Mirage. If you saw that show, there were few new artistic revelations to be had Wednesday night at Reynolds Hall (though the band did not play a bluegrass version of "King Tut," a great show-capper from last year's performance). Martin continued to stitch songs together with short comedic bits, opening with, “I am wearing a blue suit tonight. I bought six of them for us to wear onstage and showed them to the band. Now, I have five extras.”
Martin’s goofy-brilliant approach to comedy fits well with the fun-loving spirit of bluegrass. He jokes that seeing him perform with the Steep Canyon Rangers is akin to watching Jerry Seinfeld backed by a bassoon band. Not being an expert in bassoon bands, I would guess that it is unlikely they could be as lively and good-humored as Martin and the Rangers.
Martin kept the two-hour show bubbling with his expertly delivered material.
Of the picturesque landscape in Aspen, he said, “I looked around and thought, ‘Only a supreme being could have created all these gated communities.”
He joked, again, of bandmate Woody Platt’s ideally bluegrass name, accusing Platt of finding the name by using a “bluegrass name generator.”
He looked at his set list, which was noted on an iPad mounted in front of his mic, and said, “This next song is called, “Angry Birds Level 7.”
In explaining the absence of a drummer in the six-piece lineup, he said the rhythm is established by the string instruments onstage (especially a stand-up bass that doubles as a refrigerator, with a sliding door in the back — a gag used in last year’s show). He added, “The downside to traveling without a drummer — no pot.”
He said his philosophy for writing songs is to draw from personal experience. “This next one is called, ‘I Think My Masseuse is Too Chatty.” A real title for what is best described as a love song is: “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back.”
Of the half-dozen banjos placed orderly behind the band, he said, “I think of these banjos as my children, which means one of them is probably not mine.”
He looked at his digital banjo tuner, which he claimed picked up email, and said, “I just got an email. It says, stop talking and get on with it, you die quad. Hmmm …”
It’s the sort of line that keeps you coming back. I never tire of “Let’s Get Small,” or of Martin, or even the banjo. Because ... I’m a ramblin’ guy!