On Wednesday night as he surveyed his surroundings, actor, comedian, writer and musician Steve Martin humbly described onstage his recent lifestyle as "traveling around the country playing bluegrass at these roadside honky-tonks."
That this particular dive, the Hollywood Bowl, happened to be alongside the Hollywood Freeway, sells sushi at the concessions and sits in the shadows of the multimillion-dollar homes on Mulholland Drive was nearly beside the point.
Joined by North Carolina five-man string band the Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin hosted an evening of traditional American sounds featuring New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band and singer Madeleine Peyroux. Edie Brickell, who collaborated with Martin on their new album, “Love Has Come for You,” joined him and the Rangers for much of their set.
Luckily, security kept to a minimum the lewdness, drunken fistfights between talent agents and noise of shattered Champagne bottles. That there was only one murder, a (fictional) shooting inside a pickup truck during “Pretty Little One,” is commendable.
Makes sense, though. The nearly four hours of music placated the thousands there to witness artists interacting with acoustic instruments while a cool Pacific breeze brushed through. The variety included the piano, strings, soft guitar of pure-toned torch-singer Peyroux’s jazz-tinted band, the bursting, syncopated sound of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Martin and company’s old-time rural music.
Sure, Martin the entertainer was a big part of the draw -- this guy, after all, has hosted the Oscars half a mile away -- but throughout his set, Martin the banjo player and music fan earned the applause through impressive feats of bluegrass finger-picking and equally adept clawhammer-style rhythms.
Martin has carried his banjo throughout his career, of course, but starting in the late '00s he made a larger commitment when he began working with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Onstage, he described meeting them at a party in Asheville, N.C. They made the bond official with the Grammy-winning 2009 album “Rare Bird Alert.”
Throughout his hour-long set, Martin offered between-song banter that, although well-rehearsed, won the crowd. He complained about the strains of the last three weeks on the road -- only to be reminded by a Ranger that they’d been out for only two days. Tuning one of his banjos, he bragged about new electronic tuners, which he said, “emit so much less radiation than the old ones, so they're pretty safe. And I can check my email. And right now I'm watching ‘Game of Thrones.'
“I like to write songs about personal experience,” he added at another point. “This next song is called 'I think My Masseuse is Too Chatty.' " This crowd loved that joke.
Humor aside, Martin is a fantastic player, and his fame and familiarity only adds to the joy of watching him lost inside music he so clearly loves. It was fascinating to witness a social man whose entertainment and acting mind thrives on jokes, interactions, writing and delivery vanish the instant he started working his instrument.
During his melodic runs on “The Great Remember,” for example, his face turned soft, the mind behind the eyes focused on the music driving him. All Martin’s energy, a few moments before directed at earning a laugh, concentrated on his left hand sliding along the neck of his five-string and his right hand curling into a claw to work the instrument. As Martin's thumb pumped rhythm on the drone string while the back of his nails made the bottom four shimmer and resonate, his face held an expression of pure peace.
Brickell joined Martin mid-set for a number of songs from their record. The best of them was “Sarah Jane,” a song that Brickell, best known for her early 1990s hits with the New Bohemians, delivered with a touch of twang and typical vocal grace.
Near the end of the set, Brickell returned for “Pretty Little One,” a Martin-penned murder ballad with a climactic, bloody face-off between a knife-wielding man and a gun-toting woman. With typical wit and expert lyrics, the pair upended the violent country music subgenre with a plot-twist and a biting lyric.
Drama. Humor. Musicianship. An eye for talent. Somebody get this guy an agent.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @lileditCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun