Steve Martin is not only one of the funniest men on the planet, who charmed audiences with his schtick as the “wild and crazy guy” on Saturday Night Live and later starred in such comedy classics as The Jerk and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but he also is a mean banjo player. His current tour with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell – she of the 1988 hit What I Am – is winning kudos from reviewers. The June 23 performance at Kingston’s Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC), billed as “An Evening of Music and Comedy,” will offer up its share of Martin one-liners, but it’s the playing of the Steep Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band based in North Carolina, that apparently is stealing the show. One newspaper reviewer described the five-piece band as “versatile in everything from four-part church harmonies to Flatt and Scruggs breakdowns on the fiddle, mandolin, bass, guitar and five-string banjo.”
The band’s album Nobody Knows You won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2013, and its 2012 collaboration with Martin, Rare Bird Alert, was nominated for the same award that year. Martin himself is no musical slouch: His 2009 album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. It was his first solo release on the banjo, an instrument that he began playing at age 17, when he was growing up in southern California.
He took a detour from the banjo when he began writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960s, launching his career as a stand-up comedian: work that later led to starring roles in films. Martin is also an author, playwright, producer and noteworthy art collector (his collection includes one of Edward Hopper’s lighthouse paintings). The Crow marked a new stage in his career, as professional touring musician.
The tour is in conjunction with Martin’s new CD, titled Love Has Come for You, with compositions featuring his inventive five-string banjo work, playing by the Rangers and vocals by Brickell (who also wrote the lyrics). Produced by Peter Asher, known for his work with James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt and many other pop greats, the album also features Esperanza Spalding on bass, veteran studio guitarist Waddy Wachtel and Nickel Creek alumni Sara and Sean Watkins.
At UPAC, Brickell – who first gained a following more than 20 years ago as leader of the New Bohemians and who is married to Paul Simon, reportedly a close friend of Martin’s – will perform songs from the album, accompanied by Martin on banjo.
The music from Love Has Come for You also forms the soundtrack of a new musical written by Steven Martin, Bright Star. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains between 1945 and 1922 and exploring the hidden yearnings and dark secrets of a young man just back from World War II, it will be featured in a concert reading (the actors read the text and sing the songs seated onstage with scripts in hand) at the Powerhouse Theater’s Martel Theater in Poughkeepsie from July 12 to 14. Walter Bobbie, the Tony Award-winning director of Chicago and Venus in Furs, will direct.
Steve Martin with Edie Brickell & the Steep Canyon Rangers, Sunday, June 23, 7 p.m., $85/$75/$70, UPAC, 601 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 339-6088, (800) 745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com. Powerhouse Theater’s Bright Star concert reading, Friday/Saturday, July 12/13, 8 p.m., Sunday, July 14, 2 p.m., $30, Martel Theater, Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5599, https://vassar.tix.com.