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Music Review

Steve Martin offers a night of bluegrass, comedy

Steve Martin displayed considerable chops on the banjo.Stu Rosner for the Boston Globe

The punch lines were almost as plucky as the banjo picking. Here goes:

No, clawhammer is not a Kama Sutra position. It’s a style of banjo playing.

Steve Martin — yes, the ­actor and comedian you know from films and “Saturday Night Live” — said he loves the old-fashioned camaraderie of being on the road with a bluegrass band, so much so that he checks in with his bandmates after every show — when he calls them from his private plane.

Martin noted that bluegrass bands don’t typically have drummers because the instruments set the rhythm. “There’s a downside to traveling with no drummer,” Martin lamented. “No pot.”


Ah, it was indeed an evening of bluegrass and comedy, as Tuesday’s sold-out performance at Symphony Hall was billed. In the first of three nights there, Martin joined the Steep Canyon Rangers, his regular backing band these days, and the ­Boston Pops.

It was an interesting proposition: How does bluegrass, a genre known for its fleet dexterity and homespun sentiments, mesh with the classical refinement of an orchestra?

Surprisingly well, it turned out. Under Keith Lockhart’s commanding direction, the Pops added muscle behind ­already stealth tunes such as the opening “Pitkin County Turnaround.” Other times their touch was so vaporous, as on “Best Love,” it was hard to discern how much they added to the songs, all of which were originals Martin had written.

The biggest difference between a bluegrass band and an orchestra? I didn’t see a single orchestra member tapping his or her toes on rousing ­moments like “Jubilation Day” and “Rare Bird Alert,” which is the title track from Martin’s latest album with the Rangers.

Martin was ­decidedly the draw, but his ­musicianship and that of the Steep Canyon Rangers took the show beyond novelty. Showcasing his considerable chops, Martin took a solo turn on the introspective “The Great ­Remember.”


The group’s performance — at once polished but also heartfelt — made Martin’s initial joke early in the evening seem like exactly that. Reacting to the crowd’s rapturous welcome, Martin cracked, “Now I wish I’d practiced.”

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.