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Steve Martin's banjo-picking library benefit

May 12, 2009 |  9:30 am

Stevemartinbanjo

"I'm very sorry for the late start," Steve Martin said as he took a seat on stage Monday night. "If I were you, I'd hate me by now."

Judging by the burst of laughter, I'd say all was forgiven. It was the first time the L.A. Public Library held a fundraiser at downtown's LA Live entertainment district, and the proceedings were a bit bumpy: VIPs stuck on the sidewalk, all but missing the pre-party; crowds bottlenecked at entryways; that 30-minute show delay. But people had come to see Martin talk and then play banjo, and they weren't going to let a few snafus ruin the evening.

Before Martin was joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for a musical set, he sat with author and columnist Dave Barry for an interview. Perched on a folding chair with his hands on his knees, shoulders hunched under a shiny gray suit, Martin looked a bit uncomfortable — or maybe he was playing at looking uncomfortable. Barry, who may be America's funniest Pulitzer Prize winner, read from prepared cards, feeding Martin straight lines and bouncing lively jokes his way. The exchange between the two felt as much like a good comedy routine as an interview, little jokes piled on top of each other, building to a general ball of hilarity.

At one point, Barry asked an atypically serious question about Martin's many creative pursuits, which include writing books, plays and screenplays, acting in and directing films, writing music, playing the banjo and collecting fine art.

SM: That's a serious question, Dave.

DB: [suddenly shouts a curse directed at Martin, tossing his card aside]

SM: [laughing] That card really said [the curse].

Much laughter — except from behind me, where a tense voice whispered, "This is for the library. Please."

The event did make for an unusual intersection of cultures and expectations. Martin is a serious writer, art collector and musician, but he's also the guy who did stand-up wearing a plastic arrow through his head. He is a smart man who has always excelled at being silly; he's an author, but he's a performer, too.

About the musical performance — after the jump.

Martin's CD "The Crow," released in January, has risen to No. 1 on Billboard's bluegrass chart. He'll be touring this spring, as he did last night, playing songs from it backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers. The five young men play fiddle, guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin and banjo ("Isn't that redundant?" Martin cracked).

Martin plays a nimble, warm banjo — banjos, actually, vintage banjos that he'd take time to tune as he switched one for another, making jokes about the brief delays. With the Steep Canyon Rangers he played several instrumentals — "Pitkin County Turnaround," "Tin Roof" and "Saga of the Old West." The songs moved from a kind of serenity — as much as banjo music can be serene — to rollicking, bouncing energy. Toward the end, the fiddle player took on a riff with manic intensity that began to fray his bow, sweeping into bits of "Flight of the Bumblebee" and back again.

Despite all that energy on stage, the audience seemed a little unsure of how to behave. Spontaneous clapping-along applause bloomed and died, always from one corner of the 2,000-seat theater, as if others had agreed that listening in silence until the songs' end was the best way to show respect for the music.

Steep Canyon Rangers' guitarist and lead singer Woody Platt picked up vocals on some tunes, and one song they did without Martin showcased their terrific vocal harmonies (the banjo player isn't redundant; he's got a stunning bass voice).

Martin, who called himself "a pretty terrible singer," sang a few times, particularly on his cute and goofy song "Late for School" (a video of him performing it in North Carolina with the band is below).

Joining Martin on stage for two songs was his record producer and longtime friend John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who played banjo. Barry, who plays guitar in the rock-band-of-authors the Rock Bottom Remainders, came on stage for the encore, the classic bluegrass tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." The performers received two standing ovations.

There isn't really anybody with Martin's talents: He can write for page and screen, kill at comedy, play the banjo well enough to accompany Earl Scruggs. If at times some in the audience were slow to shift gears, well, that's only to be expected. They were clearly all fans, but it's hard to keep up with Martin. In fact, he set the bar pretty high for the L.A. Public Library ALOUD series at LA Live — he'll be a hard act to follow.

— Carolyn Kellogg



Photo: Steve Martin, playing banjo, center, with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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