Live Music + Gig Reviews

Steve Martin @ Royal Festival Hall, London

9 November 2009

There’s something about the egos of Hollywood stars that makes them think their talents can easily translate into a different artistic medium. Witness the endless list of failed rock bands fronted by the Keanus and Crowes of this world.

Only very occasionally are there performers who can put their money where their mouths are. One such example is Steve Martin, a living legend who oozes talent, so much so that if the crowd at the Royal Festival Hall weren’t having such a good time, they might have been seething in their seats with jealousy.

Martin is, simply, the best (and probably only) banjo player to come out of Hollywood since… well, since Kermit the Frog. Now 64, he’s been practicing since his youth and the years of experience show, with his nimble and often jaw-dropping playing.

Joined on stage by the musically formidable presence of The Steep Canyon Rangers, the evening was a showcase of material from thier recent bluegrass LP The Crow. As could only be expected from a man whose career has largely been about making moviegoers laugh, the songs were interspersed with wry, hilarious banter. After arriving on stage to rapturous applause Martin thanked the crowd for attending and helping him fulfil his two main passions in life – “comedy, and people paying for my music”.

Thereafter he provided us with deliverance from the hillbilly image associated with the banjo; Martin’s expert knowledge and reverence for bluegrass shone through. Renewed public interest in this genre has been stoked post-O Brother, Where Art Thou, and there were certainly times when it was easy to close eyes and be transported to the set of a Coen brothers comedy. This was lively, enjoyable music that plastered grins on faces, even if after 90 minutes those grins had begun to ache under the pressure.

After a few recent screen misfires, it was a great reminder of just how talented and charismatic a performer Martin is; and he was generous enough not to take centre stage or steal any limelight from The Steep Canyon Rangers. Midway through the set he left them to do their own thing for a few songs and the results were wonderful. Their instrumental and vocal skills were impeccable and the level of improvisation a match for most jazz musicians.

The set was mostly composed of Martin’s perky instrumentals, but the undoubted highlights were the superb, child-like Late For School (in which a young boy goes on a madcap race to make sure he gets to class on time) and the spoof hymnal Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs. There was even time for a bluegrass cover of Martin’s ’70s novelty hit King Tut and an epic performance of the bluegrass classic Orange Blossom Special.

The three standing ovations were richly deserved after such an evening of joyous entertainment. This was a unique and rare opportunity to see Steve Martin perform something other than his usual shtick, and to his credit it was easy to forget who we were watching and instead be mesmerised by his musicianship.

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