Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at Ravinia | Review
"If you're not enjoying the show so far, you're wrong." That’s what Steve Martin told some 13,000 people at Ravinia on Sunday night. He was referring specifically to his band’s recent commendation as Entertainers of the Year at last year’s International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. He was joking, as usual, but there was a severity in Martin’s tone that carried unmistakable pride and dedication. Immediately after the show, he tweeted, “Act on fire. @SteepCanyon Rangers and I played for 13,000 people near Chicago tonight. No humblebrag, just a brag.”
And why wouldn’t he brag? In the past ten years or so (I count Bowfinger as his cinematic swan song), the legendary comedian’s movie career has tumbled (along with Eddie Murphy’s) into family-comedy purgatory. But before that, he made an impressive splash as a playwright, and since then, he’s become a novelist. The 66-year-old hasn’t played Inspector Clousseau twice because he’s run out of ideas. He’s just on to the next thing. And in the past few years, he’s flipped priorities entirely. Once a silly but impressive gimmick in his stand-up act, banjo is now the focal point of the Steve Martin show.
While his banter was scripted with infamously dry wit, comedy was hardly the focus on Sunday night. Most of Steve’s songs had a cheekiness to them (gags about divorce and infidelity were abundant), but the lyrical jokes were closer to an act from A Mighty Wind than Martin’s classic shtick. Straight-up joke tunes like “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” are pure Martin, of course. But both lyrically and musically, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers seem to lampoon the cornier elements of bluegrass while celebrating and paying homage to the genre’s greatest moments. Just like with Martin’s early onstage persona, this musical chapter of the artist’s life is about elevating his craft to dizzying, satirical heights while working diligently to foster his talents.
The Steep Canyon Rangers are a first-rate band, worthy of Ravinia in their own right. Fiddle player Nicky Sanders managed to weave “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Joyful, Joyful” and the Simpsons theme into one particularly awesome solo. The group’s a cappella number, “I Can’t Sit Down,” would make Robin Pecknold from the Fleet Foxes weep through his amber whiskers. When Steve and his band decided to shut up and play, I completely forgot I was watching Navin R. Johnson pick away at that banjo. His chops are indisputable. In interviews, Steve has repeatedly lamented the banjo as being misunderstood. And while he might not make a bluegrass convert out of me, I can safely out myself as a born-again Steve Martin fan.