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Happy Feat: Steve Martin Plays Banjo

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We know what you're thinking: Oh, great, another celebrity banjo album.

Actually, yes. "The Crow," the collection of banjo tunes written (save for one) and performed by Steve Martin -- uh-huh, that one -- is truly wonderful. It says so right on the cover. And our opening joke is a, er, homage to one that Martin had in his stand-up routine in the mid-'60s, way before "Saturday Night Live" or the movies or the New Yorker essays or the Kennedy Center Honors.

"You're thinking, 'Oh, this is just another banjo-magic act,'" he'd quip. Back then, he played out of desperation, lacking enough surefire jokes to fill out his contracted 25-minute set.

At his ebullient 90-minute hoedown at the Warner Theatre on Monday night, the beloved entertainer told jokes to fill time while he fussily tuned his banjo. For part of the show, he played the same mystical five-string device he'd lugged around San Francisco when he was 19. Martin, 64, never stopped playing, but he found his interest renewed in 2001, when bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs invited him to perform on a record that later won a Grammy.

At the Warner, Martin was joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers, a sterling bluegrass outfit out of Asheville, N.C., a generation younger than the comedian and second fiddle to nobody. For one thing, they've got only one fiddler in their band: Nicky Sanders's manic, string-snapping workout on "Orange Blossom Special" earned him a standing ovation.

The Rangers probably sold some albums when Martin ceded them the stage for a three-song interlude that peaked with the honeyed gospel of "I Can't Sit Down." When their five voices joined to harmonize on the a cappella tune, the room held its breath.

But the evening was more about pickin' than singin', and more about Martin than his brilliant sidemen. In the bluegrass world, Martin is revered for his skill at a difficult five-finger technique known as "clawhammer." Hence the "Clawhammer Medley," wherein Martin let his nimble fingers fly on an fidgety sequence of folk traditionals.

Otherwise, he graciously shared the spotlight, allowing each of the Rangers to solo, and introducing them when he wasn't mock-reprimanding them for upstaging him.

Martin outsourced the vocals on the ballads, and on the lovely faux-memoir "Daddy Played the Banjo," to Woody Platt. He sang the funny songs himself. "Late for School," is a guileless, Shel Silverstein-like travelogue, but the performance didn't quite lift off. He was better on "Jubilation Day," a breakup song so recent it isn't on his album.

Martin closed with a hayride through his 1978 novelty hit "King Tut." But bittersweet compositions such as "Words Unspoken" reinforced what his plays and prose have already demonstrated: Mirth is far from the only emotion within his power to conjure.

"To play banjo in Washington, D.C., has long been a dream of mine," he said near the evening's end. "Tonight I feel one step closer to that goal."

Everyone's a comedian.

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