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Banjo brothers Steve Martin and Ed Helms get a little punchy

February 8, 2010 |  4:15 pm

Steve martin Steve Martin, sporting a jaunty fedora and a suit, spotted Ed Helms across the room.

"I thought I'd find you here," the comic said of "The Office" star.

Birds of a feather and all that. But it wasn't their common pedigree as celebrated funnymen that brought the two to the California Market Center on Saturday evening -- it was their affinity for the banjo and their friendship with Grammy-nominated mandolinist Chris Thile and his new bluegrass-inflected band, the Punch Brothers.

The group had just performed with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at its eighth annual concert gala, "Made in California" (although the only guest artist made in California was Carlsbad-born Thile).

"I'd never seen them play live," Martin said. "And I'm also a friend of the banjo player, Noam Pikelny. I thought it was fantastic. It's so great to see bluegrass musicians in this context to show how skillful they really are."

Helms, who plays banjo and guitar, had played casually with the group "for fun."

Helms "I've seen them many, many times," Helms said. "We have friends in common through music connections, and I've gotten to know these guys over the last couple of years. They have something very special.

"The musicianship of these guys is just staggering, so they're able to go places and do things that most bluegrass fans don't even think about. The result is this beautiful souffle of bluegrass and mystery."

-- Irene Lacher

Photos: Steve Martin (holding that fedora in his hand like a good boy because he's indoors), top right, with his wife, Anne Stringfield. At left, Gabriel Kahane, the son of L.A. Chamber Orchestra Music Director Jeffrey Kahane, with Ed Helms, right. Credits: Craig T. Mathew for Steve Cohn Photography.