Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers – The Long Center, Austin, TX 7/29/14 (SHOW REVIEW/PHOTOS)

Celebrities often use their time and money to pursue various creative endeavors that branch off from what they are known for. This usually results in a self-indulgent romp that ends poorly (Arnold Schwarzenegger anyone?) However, in the case of actor and comedian Steve Martin, who has played the banjo for fifty years, it seems likely that music has always been a first love, and his celebrity status has simply allowed him to play his instrument of choice for audiences. That being said, as the perpetually white-haired actor showed a sold out Austin crowd on Tuesday, the banjo is a tool of devotion for Martin. He’s also no jerk when it comes to playing it either.

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In the live setting, Steve Martin’s show is reminiscent of a bluegrass-centric Prairie Home Companion. At the Long Center, Martin struck a balance between his seemingly bottomless well of jokes and instrumental prowess when he greeted the crowd with a humorous monologue about his time in Austin before launching into the highly technical, up tempo “Track #7.” With its frequent time changes and precise picking, the tune established right away that this comedian is dead serious about the banjo. It helps that Martin is backed by one of the finest modern bluegrass groups around, the Steep Canyon Rangers, whose near mastery of their craft definitely enhances his own playing. Between quips about his iPad setlist and light-hearted jabs at the band, Martin soon moved into his own songs with “Daddy Played the Banjo” (“one of the first songs I ever wrote”) and “The Crow,” the latter of which saw him engaging in a something of a banjo dual with the Rangers’ Graham Sharp.

With the band warmed up, Martin welcomed the charming singer Edie Brickell to the stage. Brickell serenaded the audience with the playful “Get Along Stray Dog,” the tongue in cheek suicide tune “Yes She Did,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Love Has Come For You,” a tune that won her and Martin a Grammy. Following his loving solo tribute to the late Pete Seeger, “Gentleman Pete,” Martin blew the crowd’s collective mind when he invited none other than Paul Simon to the stage. Simon joined Brickell for a cover of the Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn duet “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” a humorous poke at the couple’s recent marital scuffle, and a gorgeous take on Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas” before leaving the stage to the biggest applause of the evening.

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The music and laughs continued with Martin and Brickell’s “Pretty Little One,” a not so typical murder ballad that delightfully flips the classic gender roles. “Auden’s Train” brought the set came to an explosive conclusion with its exuberant pace and the jaw dropping solo work of Rangers fiddler Nicky Sanders, who easily earned himself MVP of the night with an extended solo that veered from classical stylings to Beatles covers and even a tease of War’s “Low Rider.” By the time he touched on the all too appropriate “Deep In The Heart of Texas,” the crowd couldn’t help but jump to their feet and give the band a standing ovation.

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Steve Martin joked about the price of tickets to his show – some of which were steep – throughout the night, but regardless of his celebrity status, the man is a true musician and an ace on the banjo. So much so that the novelty of seeing the star of great comedies like Trains, Planes, and Automobiles and Three Amigos did not overshadow the music being made. With the help of the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell, he offered up not just a fantastic musical performance, but a well-rounded entertainment experience.

All photos by Arthur VanRooy. 

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