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Pickin' & choosin'

Comedian, actor, author and banjo player: Steve Martin has no shortage of pastimes

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/7/2011 (2219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Steve Martin may be a wild and crazy guy, but he's anything but a birdbrain.

Martin is best known as a standup comedian and actor, but he's also an author, playwright, art historian and Grammy-winning musician with two bluegrass albums to his name: The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo and Rare Bird Alert.

Steve Martin, right, performs with the Steep Canyon Rangers in Los Angeles.


Steve Martin, right, performs with the Steep Canyon Rangers in Los Angeles.

Steve Martin

Steve Martin

The fact both albums have avian-themed names is a coincidence and doesn't mean there's anything to squawk at in terms of Martin's musical ability. They are serious musical statements, although there's plenty of humour in the live show, the musician says during a recent conference call with North American reporters in advance of his summer tour, which stops at the Centennial Concert Hall Wednesday.

"We do a lot of comedy in the show, and I'm so much more comfortable with it now than I was 150 years ago when I first started doing it, you know?" he says. "And because we always have a song to go to and sometimes the songs are funny, but even when they're funny, they're serious. It's serious music and played seriously.

"The show is -- I should say, bragging -- well-paced. And there's a lot of drama and excitement in bluegrass music. And there's a lot of tempo changes -- a lot of up-tempo, there's a lot of slow songs, there's a lot of melancholy -- so that we've worked up a very nice show."

It might appear that the 65-year-old is just trying to break into the music scene now, but he's been a musician longer than he's been a comic. He started playing the banjo while growing up in California during the folk explosion of the 1960s, inspired by acts like the Kingston Trio, and used it in his earliest standup shows. And who can forget his sweet ukulele-trumpet duet on Tonight You Belong to Me with Bernadette Peters in The Jerk?

As his comedy and acting career took off, music took a back seat until he hooked up with legendary banjo picker Earl Scruggs for a remake of Foggy Mountain Breakdown in 2001 and won the Grammy Award for best country instrumental performance. He stepped up to accept another Grammy in 2010 when The Crow was named the year's best bluegrass album.

"You know, I was playing such a character in my early standup and I'm still playing a character, but it's kind of tempered," he says, comparing his life in music to his time as a popular comedian. "And it's like the modern version of what I used to do in a strange sense... I'm using what I learned, but it's so much more relaxed and so much more fun for me."

One of the main differences about being a musician is that he's not alone all the time, whether it's on the road or in the studio. For Rare Bird Alert, he hooked up with established North Carolina band the Steep Canyon Rangers, whom he continues to play with today, and enlisted guest artists such as Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks to add their input.

The album title was inspired by the filming in Vancouver of the movie The Big Year starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson. The film explores competitive bird watching and Rare Bird Alert alludes to a hotline bird watchers can call if they see a rare bird or want to know where one was sighted, Martin says.

"I know that sounds funny, but it's actually quite a good movie and I was immersed in the world of bird watching and its vernacular," says Martin, who has appeared in, written and/or produced more than 50 movies (according to online sources), including The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

The album has its humorous moments, including potential single Atheists Don't Have No Songs, but for fans of Martin's comedy work, a new bluegrass version of King Tut will stand out.

Martin seems laid-back these days and has been appearing everywhere from the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee to The Colbert Report to promote the album.

It wasn't easy initially, though. He has been appearing in front of large audiences since the 1970s, but when it came to music, everything was different. Playing with professionals like the Steep Canyon Rangers forced him out of his comfort zone and to up his game, he admits.

Just as comedy opened a door to film, it appears his entire career has led up to this musical breakthrough, even if Martin didn't plan it that way.

"Well, this is an accident. I didn't intend to do this. And, by the way, when I say standup comedy was a means of getting myself into film, that was an accident, too. I recognized that it was at the right moment, but I didn't intend for it to get me into film -- it just did," he says.

"And here, this banjo-playing moment, whatever it is, I don't know how long it'll last. I mean, I hope it lasts a long time because I love it. It was something that slowly cooked over the last 10 years, but it wasn't intended. I'm into it now. Now I wake up every day, play the banjo, and try to write a song."

Martin truly is a renaissance man, along with being talented, intelligent and courteous. What a jerk.

Concert Preview

Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers

Pantages Playhouse

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $61.50 and $73 at Ticketmaster


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