Steve Martin brings back the funny; Darius Rucker brings back the Hootie

by Ryan Snyder

“It’s always been my dream to play in Greensboro at the War Memorial,” Steve Martin said to a nearly sold-out crowd on Friday at that very venue. “Tonight, I feel like I am one step closer to that dream.” The comedian-turnedbluegrass star has been going back to his roots on the tour supporting his third banjo album, Love Has Come for You, both of which feature late ’80s alt-rock goddess Edie Brickell (and yes, her husband Paul Simon was indeed milling around backstage for the Greensboro show).

Over the course of his first two albums with Asheville’s Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin toned down his absurd wit during performances somewhat while he sought to ingratiate himself into the bluegrass community. The performances weren’t exactly bone-dry picking sessions, but it was apparent that Martin was getting used to his new role as the leader of one of the best bands in all of banjo. He had a new audience with new expectations, and to them playing the music seemed to be job one.

A 50-year vet of the instrument himself (“I think of my banjos as my children, which means one of them is not mine.”), Martin’s chops were good enough to hang with anyone, but he’s ratcheted up the satirical comedy to go along with his newfound bluegrass clout. The result is that he has formed one of the most engaging combos in the genre. His success has opened the door for Ed Helms to show that he’s among the great pickers, even if he’s still at stage one and his comedy might never completely carry over. Then there are those with top-shelf skills that make flaccid stabs at humor like Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, but Martin proved that he can go deep  into both, even while sending up its rigid tradition.

“Earl Scruggs is from near here and he’s the most influential banjo player who ever lived. I know I was influenced by him,” Martin said. “Now that he’s gone, I guess… I’m the most influential banjo player alive.”

“What?” he said as he looked back at his fellow banjoist, Greensboro-born Graham Sharp, who met his claim with a look of stern rebuke. The Rangers aren’t just playing the role of Martin’s crack backing ensemble; they’re also the stoic foils who sometimes drive the gag and lose their bearing when the laughs get a little too heavy. Martin introduced bassist Charles Humphrey with the aside that his bass doubles as the tour refrigerator, and hitting the callback later while the Rangers sung their a capella “I Can’t Sit Down” as he asked for a beer to drink backstage, which Humphreys produced from the soundhole. Sharp actually lost it when Martin mentioned he went through his wallet during intermission. “I found your license, Mr. Babalou Malagando.” But who wouldn’t? It’s classic, double-edged Martin comedy whose exaggerated pronunciation makes it equal parts sight gag and absurdist humor.

Musically, Martin’s collaboration with Brickell gets more out of the band than they probably would have own their own accord. The new album breaks away from the band’s usual rigor with electric guitar and a drummer that utilizes brushes, a cajon and the most minimal of kits to complement Brickell’s fence-sitting foray into Americana. The Rangers were suddenly not a bluegrass group when she was featured, but instead a pop-up storm of Dust Bowl chamber folk who so elegantly wring authenticity from the two big names on the tour. “When You Get to Asheville” puts an internet-era spin on the love letter and Brickell delivered it from the perspective of someone intimately knowledgeable on that subject.

She and Martin have earned their roots legitimacy through fine songcraft, but the issue of specious authenticity still hung heavy the night following a performance by Darius Rucker, Jana Kramer and Justin Moore across the facility at the White Oak Amphitheatre. Kramer, a Michiganer who jumped into country from acting, has the least compelling claim in that regard, while Moore’s shtick of being a horse’s ass to his fans falls short of achieving his country bad-boy aims and instead presents him as an actual horse’s ass. He showed his true colors when he chastised an older woman in the front row (“If you can set your ass there and take photos you can stand for the No. 1 country song.”) and rejected any other value system other than his own (“I’m a member of the NRA and if you don’t like it you can get out.”) Rucker, on the other hand, projects the same amicable dad-rock vibe from his Hootie & the Blowfish days, pointing out that he’s actually been writing country songs as long as he’s been writing music. He offered the original version of “Let Her Cry” with the preface, “This is the first country song I ever wrote. Used to play it all the time at Ziggy’s and the Blind Tiger,” proving that authenticity is probably just in the mind of the beholder.