Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
Chateau Ste Michelle Winery
June 19th, 2010
“Steve Martin Banjo Tour,” were sweeter words ever put together? Turns out, some things might be better in my “Wild & Crazy” Imagination.” Last month, I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the legendary comedian/banjoist perform with North Carolina‘s Steep Canyon Rangers; part of the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery’s annual summer concert series. I was thrilled at the opportunity. But –now– I kinda feel like a “jerk.” I was, unfortunately, just a little let down by the whole Steve Martin banjo experience… and, now I am putting it out there for the whole world to see. The following is my totally neurotic review of the whole experience.
To start out –and before you rabid Steve Martin fans begin hunting down my home address, to fire bomb me– I should mention that I am actually a huge fan of Martin’s work. At four years old, I would sneak out of bed and watch SNL skits. So… from very early, Martin sorta bounced around my primal subconscious. I am child of 1973, so I grew up with the “new comedy” that Martin pioneered. You could even say –with some real accuracy– that Mr. Martin’s antics (and Pee Wee Herman’s playhouse, but that’s a story for another time) are responsible for approximately 65% of my carefully groomed public persona.
To my delight, my research revealed that Martin and I have a “freaky” lot in common. Many people have difficult relationships with their father, but… how many of these people transform that pain into an obsession with E.E. Cummings, a respect for Vaudeville, dead pan humor, and an unexplained love of the banjo. Yep, I took up playing the banjo and can’t get enough of it; and, I dragged my waterlogged sister –and her icy feet– to visit Cummings‘ old New York home (Patchin Place) in a hailstorm. Martin brought a friend, when he tracked down the poet’s old Harvard residence. We also share an odd (and embarrassing) Disneyland connection. Steve spent his childhood working there. I spent so much time in the “magic kingdom” that it often appears as a setting in my dreams. So, yahadah yahdah… basically, I have a deep respect for the man, his passions, and the banjo. I couldn’t wait to see some of my favorite things in one place.
On the day of the show, I headed to my waitressing gig at the brash, yuppie fueled diner that I call my job. It was my birthday. At thirty-seven, I had made my way from waitressing, to the non-profit sector, working in the music industry, creating paintings, cleaning paintings, owning a coffee shop, brand marketing, and am now back to waiting tables again. I was grim and questioning what to do with my life now. But, for now, I was hurrying to get through the day; with a sweet, but sardonic, Steve Martinesque (?) shtick that I employ to turn tables into cash for bills. Soon I was shuttling home to kiss my five year old, shower, and wave goodbye to my roommate/ex-husband. I picked up my friend Laura, who had picked up a fancy pizza and some strawberries for our dinner. We drove as fast as possible to Woodinville. I was running late, as usual, and didn’t want to miss my wee chance to get up front and snap some pictures of Mr. Martin playing my favorite instrument.
Chateau St. Michelle is a beautiful location, and even with light rain showers, it was a beautiful night. I parked my dented-second-hand Suzuki next to a fleet of Subarus and Mercedes, strolled through a sea of Arc’teryx and Patagonia raincoats, and headed through the vine marked pathways. This, typically, ain’t no cheap night on the town folks. It’s a pricey ticket at the faux Chateau, but the location alone may be worth it; 87 wooded acres and lawns, lanes, and classic architecture, including some buildings which date back as far as 1912. Through a series of accommodating staff members, we found our passes, then our seats, and hunkered down to eat pizza, drink the wine, and hear the tunes. I feel it necessary to state that “the staff at Chateau St. Michelle could not have been nicer.” I use to work in the music industry, and this level of service is a rarity. Everyone helped us along the way. The staff manager, Steve, made sure that we had a good spot for taking our photographs. He tracked us down at our seats, to confirm that we knew what to do.
So far, the night had started off beautifully; when the music began, that theme continued. Old timey, clawhammer-style banjo was provided by Abigail Washburn. Steve Martin seemed truly gracious and delighted to have her opening the show. He introduced the newcomer and her yet-to-be officially named project as “Abigail Washburn and the Incredibly Drunk Band.” The highlight of their set was a newfangled murder ballad. The fiddle, bass, keyboard, and flute set a calm, yet fun, tone. Abigail’s ethereal voice brought me back to consciousness. I was sitting down, listening, and nearly forgetting that I had been slinging plates all day.
When Martin took the stage with his banjo, the weather was affecting the instrument’s tuning. He joked about the banjo being a barometer. We were, he said “essentially, paying just to watch him tune it.” I, a newish banjo player, nodded “knowingly”. He made fun of himself for having four different banjos to play; all of which, I’m guessing, were necessary and tuned to different keys.
He affectionately introduced the Steep Canyon Rangers and, although he feigned aloof and egotistical, he came off as generous and likable. He made room for his accompanying musicians to display their individual chops. The bluegrass was nearly flawless and the Rangers were a strong complement to Martin’s often humorous tunes. “Daddy played the Banjo” and “Atheist Don’t Have No Songs” alluded to some of the entertainer’s nostalgic and comic themes. And, the break-up tune “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” had me tapping my feet to my own recent relationship disaster. This audience was incredibly reserved. Martin Joked “There is a rumor that some bad antacid is going around.” I do wish that someone had been dancing; bluegrass is made for it. But, in all fairness, I wasn’t dancing either. I was sitting, eating stale cookies, and drinking wine from the bottle; when The Ranger’s amazing harmonies on “I can’t sit down” brought me clapping and to my feet.
Yup, it’s pretty remarkable that Steve Martin found it in himself to embark on a banjo tour, and create a fine album of formidable “new” bluegrass tunes. In my mind, he’s been a 64 year old dreamboat: an actor, magician, juggler, novelist, (sigh…) banjo player and yet… I pause…and …I hesitate, because, as much as I hate to, I have to admit that something was missing in this Steve Martin performance, for me.
Perhaps, this jaded disappointed stems from the fact that I am not unaccustomed to seeing great showmen live. I attended a Tito Puente performance, just weeks before he died. At age 77, the late timbale master still managed to get every person, in a room of hundreds, to respond and boogie. I witnessed the Spice Girls first American Tour, in which they engaged a full stadium of 9 year old girls. I saw Elliot Smith mesmerize a showroom with nothing but his barely audible voice and an incredibly quiet guitar. And, recently, I stared awestruck, as Tortoise made me feel as though it was only them and me in the club. The Tortoise performance was so fresh; it truly seemed that they had never played that way before. Spontaneity and engaged presence felt absent on that night at the winery. Don’t get me wrong, the music was good, the company fantastic, the location lovely, wine delicious, and Steve Martin played the banjo like it was part of him. The jokes, quips, and comments just seemed too well worn. The routine was, well… it was way too “routiney.“ This amount of over-rehearsal, and phoned-in one-liners, may just be the difference between seeing a comedian, who just happens to play really good music, and a really good musician who also happens to be funny.
I have now read, at least, eight glowing reviews that relay the exact same breakdown of the act that I saw. All of them were from different cities, but they seem to reference every phrase and humorous anecdote that I had witnessed, verbatim. Many reviewers mention the cute bit about Steve’s dog, Wally coming onto the stage and/or the gag regarding the beer hiding in a secret compartment in the bass. Then there is the part where Martin says, “This evening is about my two favorite things, comedy and charging people to hear music” or the amusing moment where he compares his banjo act to “Jerry Seinfeld writing and performing original music for bassoon.” I do realize that it’s not uncommon for some performers to reuse their “clever” repartee night after night, but it really did feel as if Martin had mentally wandered off into some other world or city. During this performance, he could have been in Saratoga Springs or Tucson. It could have been any night of the year. Martin was reciting the punch-lines between playing his heart out. But, it would have been nice to feel as if he was present in the same location as I was. After all, isn’t that the point of live performance, anyway?
It is possible that Steve Martin could never have lived up to his reputation, at least, the one that I had in my mind. He was the first rock star comedian for Christ sake. I had been blabbing about seeing this show for weeks. Maybe, it was all of the pre-hype that I inflicted on myself. The Steve Martin funny-guy bit could have been left out altogether. For me, a “Steve Martin, the Badass Banjo Playing Guy Show“, minus the recycled remarks, would have felt a lot more genuine and entertaining.
Martin made the following statement in a 2005 IGN interview, while promoting his novel-turned-film Shopgirl, “…basically the book is about small moments and the movie is about small moments, which are obviously the biggest [in life].” What he, perhaps, should have added is that the reason that many of these “small” moments will hold such a large impact, can often be attributed to their ability to reflect some level of authenticity within them. Unfortunately, as evidenced by this performance, when small moments are fabricated, they can often take more away from an experience than they contribute.
Despite any minor disappointments, I am still a big fan of Martin‘s and have every reason to believe that I will remain as such. I just inhaled his biography, Born Standing Up, and two dozen, or so, articles and interviews [the interview conducted by Charlie Rose is a particularly good one].
Those who loved this show will be happy to hear that I do have a Jewish mother. I assure you that the real guilt, from my real feelings, is killing me right now. I promise to watch The Jerk and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tomorrow (a pleasant penance). I’ll listen to The Crow in my car on the way to work. I’ll keep playing the banjo. But, as a birthday present to myself (uhum, just to keep the illusion going), I will pretend that Steve Martin was physically ill on June 19th. I have decided that what I witnessed: was just some brilliant, banjo-playing impersonator in a Steve Martin suit.