PORTLAND – The power of celebrity is an impressive thing.

Steve Martin, best known for his career as a comedian and movie actor, came to the Merrill Auditorium on Wednesday to showcase his skills as a banjo picker.

He’s been playing the banjo for most of his life, and has become a fine musician and a better songwriter. His latest album, “Rare Bird Alert,” is the top-selling bluegrass album in the country.

For Martin, music is much more than an idle sideline for a rich man looking to fill the gaps in his life. He is serious about it, and he proved it on Wednesday with an entertaining, funny and all-around exceptionally fun concert, which closed the 2010-11 season for Portland Ovations.

He jammed the place, selling more than 1,700 tickets. That’s quite an accomplishment for a bluegrass picker.

He joked from the stage that the idea of charging people a lot of money to hear him play the banjo is not unlike asking people to fork over big bucks to hear Jerry Seinfeld blow the bassoon.

Why would you?

But they did, and it’s probably safe to surmise that most people felt they got their money’s worth.

Martin, wearing a blue suit and dark glasses that accented his puffy white hair, fronted the North Carolina bluegrass band The Steep Canyon Rangers. He met them at a party in North Carolina, although he tells his friends in Hollywood that they met during rehab.

“I don’t think of them as my band. I think of me as their celebrity,” he said.

Tony Trischka and Territory, with a cameo by Portland-based fiddler Darol Anger, opened the show. Trischka, a legendary banjo player, produced Martin’s “Rare Bird Alert.”

Collectively, the two groups laid down three hours of furiously fast breakdowns, forlorn fiddle tunes and heartfelt ballads.

Picking-wise, Martin was best on “Northern Island,” an up-tempo instrumental. Lyrically, one of the highlights was “Jubilation Day,” a funny break-up song. Sample lyrics: “I’ll be over you by lunchtime.”

“Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” is Martin’s protest of all the other religions and their vast musical repertory. “Me and Paul Revere” tells the story of Paul Revere’s ride to Lexington from the perspective of his horse. “Wally on the Run” is about playing fetch with his dog, and “The Yellowback Fly” is a great fishing tale.

His songs are well-crafted, witty and articulate. And despite joking that he had been “finger syncing” all night, Martin proved an adept and accomplished musician. He didn’t sing much — he relegated most vocals to guitarist Woody Platt.

Mostly, he talked. Never did the humor detract from the music or feel out of place. In fact, one could argue that a Steve Martin bluegrass concert provides the best and most complete portrait of the artist’s talents and interests. He writes great songs and is able to convey his humor through short standup bits between songs.

To wit:

“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be playing banjo in Portland, Maine. I can’t believe it, and neither can my movie career.”

“We’d like to open with a song we have completely memorized.”

“This is a song — well, that pretty well says it.”

“(This) might be some bad poetry, but it’s a pretty good country song.”

“This is a singalong. But it has no lyrics. So, good luck.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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