“I’m sorry I don’t like to repeat.” (Audience boos.) “What do I do now? I don’t like to repeat, and yet the audience demands it…”
So ran part of Steve Martin’s stand up show back in 1979. Two years later, at the height of his success, despite the demands of his audience, he walked away from stand-up comedy for good. His final comedy album, released in 1981, contained a section of Martin playing banjo with a bluegrass band and perhaps pointed to a different direction.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Martin decided that he didn’t mind repeating. The banjo had been a bit-part of his comedy show, but on his Grammy winning bluegrass album The Crow, it was the show.
In recent performances he’s been reintroducing elements of his stand-up routine and with Rare Bird Alert, Martin appears to be making a tentative step towards the past. Nestled at the end of the album is King Tut, a staple of his old stand-up show. Re-tooled in swinging bluegrass, it’s a crowd pleaser and a reminder of what comedy lost when the man who was born standing up decided to sit it out.
There’s a smattering of comedy to be found on his latest album, suggesting that his desire to make people laugh is almost impossible to control. Atheists Don’t Have No Songs contains plenty of jokes and the vocal harmonies delivered by Martin and his band The Steep Canyon Rangers are immaculate. There’s not a single strum of banjo to be found here however, just a deftly amusing spiritual.
Jubilation Day, a tale of a relationship breakdown, hits all the obvious spots in a comedic sense (“The sex was great, at least that’s what my best friend’s brother said”) while sacrificing little other than pace musically.
When the comedy angle is dropped Rare Bird Alert really comes alive. Backed by The Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin’s band is razor-sharp and even as a self-taught banjo player he has no trouble keeping pace with musicians who are at the top of their game. The Complex, lightning fast finger picking required on the Celtic ho-down of Northern Island for example is executed with apparent ease.
Whilst it’s Martin’s name that adorns the album, Rare Bird Alert is a real band effort, not a celebrity vehicle. In fact at times he’s seemingly employed as a banjo player and little else. Occasionally he contributes vocals, but sensibly steps aside when required. Woody Platt of The Steep Canyon Rangers provides vocals for Yellow Back Fly and Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back – his authentic twang lending a sense of gravitas. The big fish story of Yellow Back Fly in particular is well judged. A sun-kissed song that evokes a perfect day’s fishing which in less nimble hands could have easily developed into Deliverance-style nightmare.
Martin’s celebrity status no doubt helped to bring Paul McCartney and Dixie Chicks on board for Best Love and You, but their presence isn’t overbearing or particularly necessary (Macca’s contribution in particular sounds wildly out of place). Instead, it’s the expert execution of The Steep Canyon Rangers on More Bad Weather On The Way, or Martin’s own finger-pickin’ trickery on the title track, that truly define the album.
Rare Bird Alert is every bit as good as its predecessor, and it’s a delight to hear Martin and his band on form. Whether he’ll resurrect the wild and crazy guy from 30 years ago remains to be seen – but the comedic aspects of these songs suggest that it’s not just the audience demanding it, but part of Steve Martin himself.