May 12, 2011

A mild and crazy guy

Shy, brainy, hilarious, a darn good banjo picker -- which terms describe Steve Martin? All of them, and he’s headed to Portland.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Steve Martin has done so many things well in his show-business career -- comedian, actor, writer, musician -- one might wonder where he finds time to practice and hone all these skills.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Portland Ovations is billing the show at the Merrill as "An Evening of Music and Comedy with Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers."

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STEVE MARTIN AND THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland

HOW MUCH: $51 to $71

INFO: 842-0800; portlandovations.org

"You know, I said this on David Letterman. He says, 'How do you have time to do all this?' I said 'Well, I don't have a job,' " Martin said during a conference call with reporters in April. "I don't go to work. I wake up, and there's hours in the day."

Martin certainly doesn't make any of what he does look like work. His comedy -- from his 1970s "wild and crazy guy" to his more subtle turns in films such as "Roxanne" and "It's Complicated" -- has always looked effortless.

His books have sold millions, and as a bluegrass banjo player, he's played on two Grammy-winning recordings: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with Earl Scruggs in 2001 and his own album, "The Crow," in 2010.

So it's no surprise that Martin is planning to showcase at least a couple of his talents when he plays Portland's Merrill Auditorium next week with a North Carolina-based bluegrass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers. Bluegrass veteran Tony Trischka will also be performing.

Judging by how much Martin talked about bluegrass during his conference call, one can figure that much of the show will be a musical concert. But it's being billed by presenter Portland Ovations as "An Evening of Music and Comedy with Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers," and it's been intimated that the show will include a bluegrass version of Martin's signature hit, "King Tut."

"Yeah, well Steve is a comedian, of course," said Woody Platt, guitar player for The Steep Canyon Rangers, during a phone interview earlier this week. "In bluegrass, there's a lot of tuning and key changing and changing of instruments, so there's always a lot of space in between the music for the comedy.

"So it's going to be a diverse night, but the music is pretty serious and focused."

Like Martin himself. The 65-year-old started playing banjo in the early 1960s as a teenager, but by the late 1960s was a comedy writer on the influential "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS. In the late 1970s, he exploded as a stand-up comedian, winning Grammys for his comedy albums "Let's Get Small" and "A Wild and Crazy Guy," and making his mark with unforgettable characters on "Saturday Night Live" on NBC.

"He really invented this idea that somebody can be a rock star as a comedian, playing giant venues," said Bob Marley, Maine's best-known comedian and holder of the Guinness world record for the longest stand-up comedy show by an individual. "I'm so envious of him. He's done everything."

Marley met Martin briefly once at an HBO comedy festival in Aspen, Colo. He shook Martin's hand and exchanged just a few words before Martin hurried away. Comedian and actress Catherine O'Hara, who knows Martin, told Marley not to take it personally.

"She told me he's very shy. He probably meets at least 60 people a day in a situation like that, and doesn't remember any of them," said Marley. "But for me, it was like, 'Oh my God, there's Steve Martin.' "

Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers have been playing off and on for two years now. They got together in a pretty roundabout way.

About 10 years ago, Platt was working as fishing guide in the mountains near Asheville, N.C., when he was hired to guide a fly-fishing trip attended by writer Anne Stringfield and her family. Platt kept in touch with Stringfield and her family after the trip.

In 2007, Stringfield married Martin. Soon after, during a vacation to North Carolina, Stringfield and Martin invited Platt and his band to stop by and jam.

"Well, I didn't know what to expect. They just said a local band was coming over," said Martin of his first meeting with The Steep Canyon Rangers. "And then a couple times after that, you know, we played some songs on stage. And I couldn't believe how -- and we played my song -- how my song sounded. It never really sounded that good to me before."

The Steep Canyon Rangers formed when all the members were attending the University of North Carolina, said Platt. Platt had started playing bluegrass for fun, and had never been in a band before. Before long, the group was playing gigs and recording original bluegrass music.

The band and Martin are touring in support of their album "Rare Bird Alert," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart in March.

"We really had instant chemistry with (Martin)," said Platt. "He's very confident, and good, but he's also humble and open-minded."

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Perhaps best known as a comic, actor and writer, Steve Martin is also a Grammy-winning bluegrass banjo player. He’s pictured above with The Steep Canyon Rangers.

Courtesy photo

  


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