Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 3:12 pm | Fair 70º


Jeff Moehlis: Steve Martin Tangled Up in Bluegrass

Comedian hits all the right notes both in music and amusing banter

One gets the impression that Steve Martin could be good at pretty much anything he wanted to be, at least in the world of entertainment — and, well, it seems that he really is.

In the 1970s, his comedy was hugely popular, with riotous live performances, appearances on television including Saturday Night Live, and comedy albums. Remember A Wild and Crazy Guy, “Well, Excuse Me” and “happy feet”? Martin then moved on to movies, which included acting in — and often writing screenplays for — popular movies such as The Jerk, All of Me, Roxanne and Father of the Bride. He also wrote the acclaimed play Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Then there is music, in particular banjo music, something hinted at in Martin’s 1970s comedy act, although then it often was performed with an arrow sticking through his head.

In recent years, Martin has brought his seriously fine banjo playing to the fore, most notably with his 2009 album The Crow, which won the 2010 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. The album included support from a super-talented group of musicians from Asheville, N.C., called the Steep Canyon Rangers.

On Friday night, Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers treated the audience at The Granada in Santa Barbara to a thoroughly enjoyable evening of Martin doing two of his favorite things: “comedy, and charging people to listen to music.” Martin — who owns a house in Montecito — quipped that it had been “a longtime dream of mine to play bluegrass in Santa Barbara. Tonight, I feel that I am one step closer to this goal.”

The show started with the breakneck “Pitkin County Turnaround,” one of the best tracks off The Crow, a track that Martin jokingly claimed had been described by Rolling Stone Magazine as a “worthwhile illegal download.” Later, he mused about the beauty of Pitkin County (home of Aspen, Colo.) this time of year, saying that one “can only believe that a supreme being created all those gated communities.”

Another wonderful song from The Crow was the plaintive “Daddy Played the Banjo,” before which Martin said that it had been written after his wife bought a book of bad poetry, and he decided “I could write some bad poetry,” too. After his attempt, he realized “that might be bad poetry, but it would make a good country song.” Indeed. This was sung by guitarist Woody Platt, a name that Martin joked was a little too perfect for a bluegrass musician; he later claimed to have discovered Platt’s driver’s license backstage that showed his name was really Lao Ping.

Some new songs — perhaps to be featured on their new album coming out next year, which Martin said he knows will be a huge success because the week of its release he is going to die of a Vicodin overdose — included the amusing “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back”; “Auden’s Train” with lyrics from a poem by W.H. Auden and featuring some great locomotive sounds by fiddler Nicky Sanders; and “Jubilation Day” about a relationship breakup. Another new song was the fast-paced “Rare Bird Alert,” which will be on the soundtrack of the recently shot movie The Big Year with Jack Black and Owen Wilson about competitive birdwatching.

The Steep Canyon Rangers also had a chance to shine on their own, after bassist Charles R. Humphrey III pulled a beer out of his bass for Martin who went backstage — and shine they did. The highlight was a stunning and, well, downright heavenly a capella version of the Wade Mainer bluegrass gospel tune “I Can’t Sit Down,” with lyrics such as “Why don’t you sit down? / I can’t sit down / I just got to heaven / I want to walk around.” But lest the proceedings get too serious, Martin returned for the follow-up, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” with lyrics such as “For atheists / They have a rule / The ‘he’ is always lowercase.”

For the encore, the band played a smoking version of “Orange Blossom Special,” during which fiddler Sanders played snippets from “Norwegian Wood” — presumably in honor of John Lennon’s 70th birthday the next day — plus “Good Vibrations,” “The Barber of Seville” and “Sabre Dance.”

The concert ended triumphantly with “King Tut,” a hit song by Martin in the 1970s, done here bluegrass style. This is a song near and dear to my heart because when the King Tut exhibit passed through Los Angeles a few years ago, I took the occasion to educate my young daughters by — what else? — finding Martin’s Saturday Night Live King Tut skit on YouTube. (OK, I also took my older daughter to the exhibit.)

Things got a little out of control, and my wife made me a costume based on Martin’s Saturday Night Live costume, which I wore for Halloween. (My wife and daughters were beautiful “sparkle girls,” based on the dancers from the skit.) I ended up performing this song karaoke several times, including while walking down State Street during that year’s Halloween parade.

Steve, if you’re reading this and you need a costume for Halloween this year, my “Steve Martin Singing King Tut” one is still in my closet. Give me a call if you want to borrow it.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site,

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