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The Home of the Brave

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers with Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys at Carnegie Hall

Posted by evankessler on October 7, 2009

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!  Or if you’re Steve Martin, you get there by being one of the more talented human beings in nearly all facets encompassed by the arenas of stage, screen, and the written word in recent memory.  The ability to do a damn fine job finger-picking a banjo, can’t hurt either.

I’ve always had somewhat of a love/hate relationship with the work of Steve Martin.  The jealous part of me thinks he’s a total asshole for being so great at everything.  I only wish I could be as good at one thing  as he is at well…you name it, he’s probably an expert.  I bet he’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a world class chef.

The other part of me finds the deft touch of wit and complete dedication he seems to put into everything to be totally admirable and absolutely endearing.  The latter, more positive part wins out 99.9% of the time.  So, it was with little to no hesitation that I accepted an invitation on Tuesday evening to attend Steve Martin in concert at Carnegie Hall accompanied by the North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers with the legendary Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys slated to be the opening act.

To be as gifted as Steve Martin is to be allowed to display  at least a cursory amount of arrogance and for as long as I can remember Martin’s feigned air of superiority has been a staple of his humor repertoire.  While jabs at his own haughty superstardom would mark later banter in his performance, the perennially white-haired jack-of-all arts strolled on stage with his banjo at around 8pm and thankfully announced to the crowd that he had always dreamed of doing a Banjo show at Carnegie Hall.  He went on to inform the crowd that when it was suggested that the legendary Bluegrass performer Ralph Stanley be his opener, his response was, “Ralph Stanley doesn’t open for me.  I open for Ralph Stanley.”  And with that the show began, Martin picked his way through a short number influenced by several of his favorite banjo tunes growing up.  Following a generous round of applause Martin exited stage right and made way for Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys.

Bluegrass Legend Dr. Ralph Stanley

Bluegrass Legend Dr. Ralph Stanley

Clad in matching outfits suitable for a traditional bluegrass whoop up complete with cowboy hats and guitars, fiddles, banjos, and a standup bass accompanying them, the Clinch Mountain Boys sauntered out on stage followed by what appeared to be a tiny aged afterthought, shuffling to catch up with arms crossed.  The Clinch Mountain Boys launched into their opening number and the aged man still hung back from the microphone so as to patiently bide his time until it was his turn to make his voice heard.  As the opening instrumental came to a close, Bluegrass Legend Ralph Stanley stepped up to the microphone and gave a haunting rendition of “O Death,” a song more recently familiar to many music fans as a track on the acclaimed “O Brother Where Are Thou?” soundtrack.  After wresting complete attention from his band for that moment with his weathered, otherworldly wail; Stanley and company launched into the much beloved “Man of Constant Sorrow” which also enjoyed a resurgence from the aforementioned Coen Brothers soundtrack.

Steeped in 60 plus years of tradition, the hour and ten minute opening set by the legend and his cohorts rolled on like a steam train running on fuel made out of clawhammer guitar strumming and tunes played tighter than a parachute pack on a first time skydiver. The 82-year-old Stanley occasionally slowed things down with some stage banter; banter that made you realize just how young you were.  On several occasions he’d mention when he wrote songs, peppering in years like 1948, and 1954; probably long before many attendees were a gleam in their mama’s eyes. It was a family affair for old Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys as we learned that many of the players had been with him for upwards of around 16 years maybe even longer.  More than that though, they also featured Stanley’s actual 17-year old grandson on the guitar.  They let him sing a few too.

Perhaps the oddest moment of the entire evening came when Ralph Stanley invited his son, Ralph II out on stage to play a few tunes with him.  From the moment Two (Ralph Stanley II’s nickname) entered stage right, visions of Kenny Powers and many other of the world’s greatest black sheep bounced around the brains of the audience.  While everyone else was wearing more Bluegrass friendly garb, Stanley’s son separated himself wearing sunglasses, a dark designer outfit ,and a devil may care attitude accented by his cocky stroll to the microphone stand.

Ralph Stanley II

Ralph Stanley II

Just Kidding: This is Ralph II

Just Kidding: This is Ralph II

Instead of thanking his father for having him up on stage, Two spouted off sales facts about his new album.  It debuted at number one, it’s been number one for a few weeks, and so on…  It was as if the former Clinch Mountain Boy was saying, “look at me dad, I can do this shit without you.  You may be a legend but you’re fucking out and I’m fucking in.”  While Two’s first song seemed like a stereotypical neo-country snooze fest, the second with his father and what seemed like the full compliment of the band, had a lot more life to it.

Overall, the full set performed by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys was a solid outing with very few chinks in the armor.  While Stanley’s aged rasp didn’t necessarily travel that well through the Carnegie Hall sound system on occasion, he along with his band made you feel as though it were an honor and a privilege to be in the presence of such musical history and greatness.

Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers

Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers

If Ralph and Co. were as tight as a snare drum, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers performance had about as regimented a feel as elementary school recess.  Martin’s original compositions were pleasant to the ear and full of toe-tapping, knee-slapping splendor, but they also had an airy, loose feel that was quite apparent from the get-go.  Throughout it all Martin kept the audience smiling and laughing with trademark witty banter.  He warned his bandmates not to be too talky as that was his job and threw wrenches in the conventional stage discourse reserved for expounding on song backstory.  At one point Martin was about to wax informational about the inspiration behind a particular ditty, launching into…”this song…” and letting the words hang in the air before actually playing it. He also told the crowd that the tour fulfilled a life long dream of his to go on the road with handsome men, referencing his bandmates in the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Martin again proved a modest host early on in his set, leaving the stage for his bandmates, allowing the audience some quality time to get acquainted with the music they play when not in the presence of such a superstar.  The Steep Canyon Rangers certainly impressed with the vocal harmonies on their Gospel award nominated track “Be Still Moses” and another song.

Martin soon returned to the stage and the loose atmosphere persisted even through a turn at more traditional songs.  He only provided vocals on two or three of his own songs with his bandmates picking up singing duties on the other non instrumentals.  Even the more poignant songs had a dash of humor as Martin introduced “Daddy Played The Banjo” as a song he wrote while attempting bad poetry, which he thought made for a good country song.

Even in the midst of delivering his blend of bad poetry, the crowd was never left wanting for someone more talented.Having such an adept comedian deliver  in the midst of such a fine setlist of quality music seems like a nearly once in a life time opportunity.  Martin’s songs off The Crow: New Songs for The Five-String Banjo may or may not leave an indelible mark on the Bluegrass community but seeing this undeniable talent’s combination of skills in action certainly left one in my mind.

In a fitting end to the evening after an encore or two, Martin called out all of the night’s performers to join in on the bluegrass standard Orange Blossom Special…and as Martin traded lyrics with the legendary Ralph Stanley, he made sure to throw in a “King Tut” just to make everyone remember from whence he came.

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