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Live: Steve Martin at Walt Disney Concert Hall

October 29, 2009 | 12:36 pm

The actor's considerable banjo-playing skills were in the spotlight, but his comedic talents pop in as well before a delighted near-capacity audience.


Were Steve Martin's instrument of choice a violin, piano or guitar, he might well have shown up in the company of several top players in the field, as he did Wednesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and gotten by without so much as a quip about moonlighting. But Martin, who long used the banjo as a prop in his stand-up act, is all too aware of the inherent comedy that the instrument, like the accordion, holds for most listeners.

"My wife inspired the title for this next song," he told the near-capacity crowd by way of introduction. "It's called 'When Are You Going to Stop Playing the Damned Banjo?' "

Unlike Woody Allen, who can appear practically mirthless in concert when he sits down with his clarinet to play traditional jazz, Martin was perfectly comfortable and utterly engaging alternating between his two passions, humor and music. 

The 64-year old comedian, writer and director -- who lately has turned serious intention to both playing and composing with his first full album of music, “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo” -- easily held his own in the company of the Steep Canyon Rangers, the North Carolina bluegrass quintet that is backing him on tour, as well as his world-class guests for the night.

Banjoist-singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn opened the show and joined him for one number, and "newgrass" innovator Béla Fleck, who had played a few nights earlier at UCLA, stayed in town to sit in with Martin and Washburn, who also happens to be Fleck's wife.

Martin cannily has chosen not to try adding his stamp to the bluegrass standards -- outside of the obligatory run-through of "The Orange Blossom Special" that closed his set -- but to focus on his own compositions. He's an inventive composer and accomplished player, employing strong melodies, often surprising chord progressions and savvy use of syncopated phrasing that sustain interest.

Those qualities led to several recent award nominations for "The Crow" by the International Bluegrass Music Assn., and it will be no surprise if his name pops up again when Grammy Award nominations are announced in December.

His mention of the IBMA nominations segued into a timely reference in which he announced, with resignation, that the only prize he took was the one for best liner notes. "I couldn't believe it. I was standing there with my award, and Kanye West came on stage and said 'Doc Watson's liner notes were better!' "

But once the music started, the wisecracking stopped -- for the most part. He added whimsical words to "Late for School," which he said had started out as an instrumental. And for "Daddy Played the Banjo," which he let Steep Canyon guitarist Woody Platt sing, he recycled some lines he'd written as an exercise in bad poetry upon realizing that "It may be bad poetry, but it's a pretty good country song."

Actually, it's a smartly crafted story of invented cultural history, a confession by someone who wasn't born in Appalachia yet loves the music of that region just as much as any native. Witty as the song's punch line is, ultimately the joke is that in honestly exploring his affinity for this strain of American folk music, Martin legitimately has been adopted into that family.

Washburn's 40-minute set opened the eyes and ears of the Disney Hall audience to one of the under-sung wonders of Americana music. Washburn picked up the banjo late in life, after living for many years in China, as a way of reconnecting with her own cultural roots.

She drew the line from ancient Appalachian ballads such as "Bright Morning Stars" to even older Celtic music styles that immigrants to the U.S. brought with them, and wed her trans-global experiences in "Song of the Traveling Daughter," which she sang in Mandarin while fleetly plucking her banjo clawhammer style with accompaniment from fiddle and cello.

Now that's world music.


Photo: Steve Martin on banjo with Charles R. Humphrey III on bass. Credit: Brian Vander Brug.