Steve Martin | California | Review | Pics

Words & Images by: L. Paul Mann

Steve Marting & The Steep Canyon Rangers :: 10.08.10 :: Granada Theatre :: Santa Barbara, CA

Steve Martin by L. Paul Mann
The big question on everyone's mind when Steve Martin made his much anticipated appearance in Santa Barbara was whether he would be funny or serious about his musical performance. The answer turned out to be a bit of both.

The sold out show took place in the newly renovated Granada Theatre . It took nearly a decade and tens of millions of dollars to restore the historic 1550 seat performing arts venue to its former glory and beyond. With an original grand opening in April of 1924, the eight-story structure was the only tall building to survive the devastating 1925 earthquake in downtown Santa Barbara. Subsequent city ordinances and strict building codes have ensured that the Granada remains the only tall building now and in the future in this conservative town. An almost over the top restoration has created one of the most beautiful and comfortable venues in the nation. Sponsored by the UCSB Arts and Lectures Series, which brings a treasure trove of multimedia and live performances to the city each year, the event attracted a sold out crowd, largely composed of academicians. Taking advantage of discounted tickets, UCSB staff and students flocked to the show, creating an invigorating and insightfully appreciative crowd.

The mercurial Martin actually seems to have more than two brains with his ability to excel in most any endeavor he attempts. He has mastered the art of filmmaking as a director, writer and actor. He was written countless books from biographies to children's stories. He even has become a successful painter whose canvases are praised by many critics in the art world. But in Santa Barbara this night, the 64-year-old Martin kicked off the second night of his new tour doing the two things he loves most: "Comedy and charging people to listen to music."

From the moment he stepped onstage, it was apparent that the king of 1970s stand-up comedy had not lost his brilliance as a humorist. Posing in an endless array of crazy facial expressions that have defined him for decades, he immediately launched into band introductions. “Hello Santa Barbara, these are the Steep Canyon Rangers," he said as the group received a standing ovation. "The local newspaper called them the 'Steep Canyon Ramblers'." A hilarious diatribe about the difference between Rangers and Ramblers came next. Then he quipped, "Oh, now I wish I'd practiced. It's a longtime dream of mine to do bluegrass in Santa Barbara. Now I am one step closer to that dream." Then he launched straight into a frenetic bluegrass jam titled "Pitkin County Turnaround" from his Grammy Award winning new album The Crow. The stage was set for the evening, as Martin followed nearly every song with what began as an innocuous comedic rambling and ended with an insightful, witty story. The academics in the crowd answered with wild applause and laughter following his witty punchlines and even some of his more obscure references. Indeed, at times the evening almost felt like a college lecture, albeit a hilarious one, on the History of Bluegrass in America.

Martin & Rangers by L. Paul Mann
As funny as his diatribes were, his music held equal weight throughout the night. Martin, who actually began playing banjo at the age of five, has been an accomplished musician for decades. In his earliest stand-up routines, which sometimes resembled a vintage vaudeville stage show, he would surprise the audience with a flash of brilliant banjo picking, although it was usually while wearing a cap with a fake arrow stuck through it. The North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers are a masterful bluegrass group who are successful in their own right. Combined with Martin's amazing songwriting and banjo prowess, they are a musical tour de force.

As Martin struggled to tune his four banjos throughout the night it was hard to tell how much of his banter was scripted and how much was improv. He spent several minutes playing with his new iPad, which he used to store the setlist. At one point he stopped to post a tweet, which he end with the typical LOL but spelled out in long form. After a song he wrote for his dog (where the fiddle player made barking sounds on his instrument), Martin's dog actually made a sweep across the stage behind him. Such hilarious moments rolled over the audience like a runaway train. Wondering if some in the crowd were just curious to see a movie star play banjo, he imagined some might think it was like "Jerry Seinfeld playing a night of original song for the bassoon." Martin then got to plug his new song "Bird Alert," which will appear on the soundtrack of the new film Big Year. The film, in which he has a part, centers on the story of competitive bird watching and stars Jack Black and Owen Wilson. "I'm finally getting a break in life," Martin sneered.

After the first rambunctious hour ended, Martin retreated backstage with a beer that Charles R. Humphrey III pulled out of his stand-up bass. The Steep Canyon Rangers then had a chance to showcase their talents on a medley of songs ending with a fantastic acappella take on the bluegrass gospel classic "I Can't Sit Down." Then in typical Steve Martin fashion, the veteran performer returned triumphantly to the stage to lead the group in another acappella Martin original entitled "Atheists Don't Have No Songs." From this point on, the brilliant comedy and masterful music seemed to meld into one great performance and it became hard to separate the two.

The band played a bluegrass classic "Orange Blossom Special" for the encore, which featured Nicky Sanders, the group's prodigy fiddle player. Doing a mash-up jam composed of fine fiddle prowess, he led the group through snippets of songs ranging from The Beatles and The Beach Boys to classical music. Finally coming full circle, in what seemed like a fitting finale, Martin played his first campy classic musical hit, "King Tut." The 1978 novelty hit resounded across a standing, cheering crowd throughout the restored Granada, which opened in 1924 about the same time that King Tut's tomb was discovered in Egypt.

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[Published on: 10/19/10]

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