Anchorage — As Atwood Concert Hall filled to capacity Wednesday for the second of Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers' two shows in Anchorage, the question was whether I was about to sit through a comedy routine or a concert.
"It's long been a dream of mine to play bluegrass in Alaska," Martin explained after the band took the stage. "Tonight I feel I'm one step closer to achieving that dream." After briefly introducing the band, he pointed out that he was the one wearing the white pants. "I'll be wearing them all night unless something goes horribly wrong."
So my question was answered right off the bat: The rootsy North Carolina band and world famous comedian were going to split the difference.
"The next song is a sing-along, which is tricky because it's an instrumental," Martin quipped before launching into the second song of the set.
Instrumentals made up a significant chunk of that set, giving the Rangers -- anchored by singer and guitarist Woody Platt and Charles R. Humphrey III on upright bass -- plenty of opportunities to flex their solo chops. Mike Guggino and Graham Sharp swapped licks on mandolin and banjo, and Nicky Sanders' fiery fiddle solo in the encore brought the house down.
For his part, Martin was more than capable of holding his own at banjo -- taking his own turns in the solo spotlight that, while maybe not as flashy as those by his band mates, were as precise and deliberate as his jokes.
"I don't think of them as my band. I think of myself as their celebrity"
All the songs performed with Martin were written or co-written by the comedian, most culled from "Rare Bird Alert" or the 2010 Best Bluegrass Album Grammy-winner "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo." It's sophisticated and polished bluegrass that doesn't seem out of place in a large concert hall.
But the between-song banter and high jinks nudged the proceedings a little closer to the Grand Ole Opry ("This next song is a story song. I can explain what a story song is in case you're an idiot"). At one point Martin explained that he and the band had an agreement that they'd stop playing together whenever it stopped being fun, prompting the Rangers to exit stage right. That set up a solo banjo song by Martin.
Before that, Martin left the stage so the Rangers could do a couple songs. The second of those, the a cappella gospel tune "I Can't Stand," was the highlight of the night. It also served as the primer for its jokier counterpart, "Atheists Don't Have No Songs." ("Some folks sing a Bach cantata / Lutherans get Christmas trees. Atheist songs add up to nada / But they do have Sundays free.")
The crowd ate it up for nearly two hours, even tolerating a couple new and unfamiliar tunes, which Martin joked is a lot to ask of an audience. "We just want to hear the hits," he said while putting himself in our shoes. "Make that song a hit, then come back and play it."
"But we don't have any hits; we're a bluegrass band."
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