DES MOINES — Is there anything Steve Martin can’t do?
Apparently, no wrong, judging by the reactions of the 2,735 people filling every seat in the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines on Saturday night.
His bluegrass concert with the fabulous Steep Canyon Rangers drew wild and crazy hoots, thunderous applause and standing ovations throughout nearly two hours of nonstop music, peppered with Martin’s winning wit.
Comedy’s golden boy has the Midas touch with everything he does, and the hardware to back it up. Since 1969, he’s won an Emmy for cowriting“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”; Grammy Awards for two comedy albums, a banjo collaboration with the legendary Earl Scruggs and Best Bluegrass Album in 2010; the 2005 Mark Twain Prize for humor and Disney Legend award; 2007 Kennedy Center Honors; and the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award. He’s written critically acclaimed movies, plays, books and music, and starred in comedies and dramas on screens big and small.
His Civic Center concert was impeccable, from beginning to end.
“It’s been a longtime dream of mine to play bluegrass in Des Moines, Iowa, and tonight I feel I’m one step closer to that dream,” he said to the evening’s first burst of laughter. “Driving into town, I saw a poster that said, ‘Steve Martin sold out.’ I thought, ‘How rude!’” Without missing a beat, he added that he played Des Moines 40 years ago, “So I see a lot of familiar faces in the audience.”
Actually, an all-ages audience gathered there to revel in his revelry. He made good on the promise, “Rarely do you see a bluegrass show that’s boring.”
His fingers flew through a string of his original compositions that set all the strings on fire, from the five banjos he alternated to the North Carolina band’s fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin and standup bass.
Martin gave us a little lesson on the methods he employs: Scruggs style, a three-finger technique using picks, and clawhammer, which doesn’t use picks, and creates a more melancholy, emotionally evocative sound. He’s masterful at both.
His clawhammer approach on “The Great Remember” produced a melodic tone that sounded like two instruments being played at once, even though he was alone in the spotlight.
Many pieces were all-instrumental, but when Martin or his bandmates added lyrics, they were hilarious. Of course.
Especially funny was “Pretty Little One,” his “traditional bluegrass murder ballad” in which a man wielding a knife chases a woman, intending to stab her, only to discover “she had a pistol trained on me.” Things didn’t end well for the man. His breakup song, “Jubilation,” had everyone howling from the moment he sang, “I’m walking away, like Dear Abby told me.” So did his other breakup song, “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back.”
Some songs actually were tender and moving, like the love song he penned for his wife, “Best Love.” The lyrics were funny and sweet — the kind of love song you’d expect Steve Martin to write.
It’s pretty much impossible to choose the songs we loved best, but I’d have to give the nods to the Steep Canyon Ranger’s a cappella gospel number and to the final finale, Martin’s ode to poet W.H. Auden, titled “Auden’s Train.” Virtuoso playing by fiddler Nicky Sanders sounded like whistle and wheels simultaneously, with the others adding the clicketyclack. Listen closely, and you’ll hear snippets of classics from “Norwegian Wood” to the “William Tell Overture.”
My favorite title of the evening: “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”
Good thing Steve Martin does.
- Diana Nollen