That’s right – I’m reviewing Jay Z/Beyoncé and a bluegrass concert in the same damn week. Don’t try to put a label on me – I am an enigma, a mystery wrapped in a riddle. I reject your categorization. Nobody puts Baby in a (musical) corner.
I really have no clear idea of when exactly I discovered bluegrass and realized that I quite enjoyed it; it was definitely a more recent phenomenon, since I pretty much rejected anything that had any semblance of a connection to country music for most of my life as a rebellion against my Upstate New York, small town upbringing. I was too busy posturing that musically I liked “everything but country” to even give the music a chance, let alone realize that there were all sorts of subgenres to the music that I was indistinguishably lumping together. If I had to venture a guess, I think the Coen brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” had something to do with my interest in bluegrass music specifically. Music was so important to that film and the story that they were telling and somewhere along the way I think it dawned on me that I really dug the banjo and that this did not automatically transform me into a hillbilly. I know – the idea that someone that loved boy bands in her youth would be throwing shade at any other music is downright ridiculous. But whether that movie was the catalyst or not, I’ve slowly begun to educate myself on the world of bluegrass and have enjoyed discovering new bands along the way. I’ve only at the tip of the iceberg, but it’s been a fun journey.
Mostly my approach to exploring bluegrass has been fairly scattershot; there isn’t necessarily any method to my madness – sometimes it’s something as simple as I like a band’s name that causes me to check them out. However, as soon as I heard that Steve Miller put out a bluegrass record with The Deep Canyon Rangers my survey became more focused. Steve Martin is among some of my earliest comedic memories and I have always enjoyed his work, so I absolutely had to give his new project a listen. I had heard rumblings over the years about his enjoyment of the banjo, but I had no idea if he was actually any good at it or if this was just a hobby for a man who had many other talents.
Turns out, he was pretty great and I got to discover The Deep Canyon Rangers in the process, a talented band in their own right. Their album, Rare Bird Alert, was a regular in my musical rotation, especially at the office, where I’ve found bluegrass to serve as nice background music to my busy days. Martin then teamed up with Edie Brickell in 2013 for Love Has Come For You and this time I was prepared, downloading it the day it was released. I didn’t think it was possible, but I enjoyed the second album even more, in thanks largely to Brickell’s amazing voice. I was vaguely familiar with her previous work with The New Bohemians, but there was just something about her voice paired with bluegrass that was magical. Love Has Come For You is still one of my go-to albums that I put on whenever I’m not sure what to listen to. It’s the best. I also doubled back to listen to Martin’s first album The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.
When it was announced that Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and The Deep Canyon Rangers were touring together AND that they were coming to town, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going. I had to see if I would enjoy the music as much in person and with promise of Martin telling a few jokes in between songs was a lure that was too powerful to resist. He’s a comedy legend, after all, and even if it was a few quips here and there I wanted to have the chance to say that I saw him perform.
I had to chuckle as I walked into the theater, since the age of the crowd appeared to skew quite a bit older than me; I swear, I only seem to go to shows where I am either among the youngest or oldest people there. There really doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. I felt a little bit like a fraud as I overheard some of the conversations around me – these people knew bluegrass. I just didn’t have the bona fides and I was hoping to stay under the radar. Thankfully, while people were friendly, I was not found out as a bluegrass newbie.
The show kicked off with Martin and The Deep Canyon Rangers and it was a delight from the first note. It was a thrill to see Martin up on the stage and all of the musicians sounded great and complimented each other well. One of the things that I like about Bluegrass is that it is just so relaxing and I could feel any stress from the day slip away as they played. Steve Martin dominated the patter and was kind of the focal point, but The Deep Canyon Rangers weren’t playing second fiddle (ha!) and were often part of his jokes. Martin’s jokes were pretty basic – and the same ones that he’s been telling throughout the tour – but that didn’t make them any less witty or amusing. He was clearly relaxed and having fun up on stage, which came through in his performance. I was not surprised when he said that music was his first love; that really shone through as he and The Deep Canyon Rangers worked their way through their collection of songs.
This was all tremendously enjoyable, but when Edie Brickell came out on stage to join them, the show kicked into another gear. I really thought that I knew what I was prepared for, given my familiarity with Love Has Come For You, but in person in that beautiful old theater, her voice was simply tremendous and elevated an already great show to a whole different level. This is not to minimize the wonderful talent of the other musicians, but there was just something transformative about hearing her slight Texas drawl over the sound of banjos and fiddles. It all just fit together perfectly and the lyrics of the songs really came to life in a way that was impressive to behold. After the show, I sought out some of Brickell’s other material and while she has a nice voice, none of her songs with The New Bohemians resonated with me quite the way that her songs with Martin and The Deep Canyon Rangers did.
Brickell and Martin ducked out at one point to let The Deep Canyon Rangers have their moment for a few songs; I was quite impressed with their lead singer Woody Platt, who also possessed a strong and beautiful voice. Really, the whole stage was lousy with talented musicians and every configuration that was out on stage together worked well, speaking to their versatility and familiarity with each other. Even Martin had a solo moment, which was the real moment of truth – I had no doubt that he knew how to play, but up until this point he’d had the benefit of a full band accompanying him. He did just fine on his own and definitive proved that this was a man that knew his way around a banjo. Martin’s voice isn’t the strongest – something that I don’t think he’d argue with – so he mostly sticks to the instrumentals. His best effort vocally was when he teamed up with Brickell in the murder ballad “Pretty Little One.”
Sadly, before I knew it the show was over; when Martin indicated that they were drawing things to a close, the reserved crowd actually playfully booed – they didn’t want it to end. I agreed with them; it may not have been the flashiest or most rocking show that I’ve ever been to, but I walked out of the theater with a big smile on my face.
And then I hopped into my car and rocked out to Metallica.