Taking the Blue Out of Bluegrass
Last night, late in the evening I was browsing the TV program guide and noticed a Great Performances production on one of the "off-channel" PBS stations in the Chicago area, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell. It was mid-performance when I tuned it, and it was terrific. I don't know if it will be showing in your area -- or has already been on -- but if you see it listed, it's well-worth checking out.
I understand that it's not for everyone. Banjo and bluegrass music not only isn't for everyone, but for most people. I happen to like the banjo. (I actually even play it, sort of. I took lessons years back and have a banjo, but haven't played for a while and would need to do some refreshing.) But even if such things aren't to your cup of tea, it worth checking out for at least 5-10 minutes, if only for Martin's entertaining commentary between songs.
(And even if you detest bluegrass, it's still worth recording. Because if you fast-forward to the Pledge Breaks, they all begin with hilarious little Pledge Plea videos that Steve Martin made. In one, he talks about how boring Pledge Breaks can be, and slowly unwraps a stick of gum and just sits there chewing, but then talks about the special gifts you'll get and gives a demonstration in package wrapping. In another, he keeps getting interrupted by a phone ringing -- ostensibly from someone calling in a pledge -- and each time lifts the receiver and quickly slams it down, becoming more annoyed as he goes on. Or he texts "One of my celebrity friends" for a pledge and gets things back like a text from Tom Hanks, "I'll pledge the $200 you still owe me, you cheap bastard.")
The show itself has a great mixture -- sometimes Martin playing alone (he's quite talented, and even sings occasionally, and very well), usually with the full band in vibrant performance of lively songs written by Martin, and finally, often joined by Edie Brickell singing songs that she and Martin wrote together. And all, as I said, tied together by Steve Martin's entertaining commentary. Sometimes informative, and sometimes -- "Being here tonight lets me do the two things I love: comedy, and charging people to listen to music." Then there was the time he returned to the stage following a Steep Canyon Ranger solo, "I was just in the bathroom and saw the sign, 'Employees Must Wash Their Hands.' Thank goodness I'm not an employee."
I've never been a particular Edie Brickell fan, but she's very good here, her style fitting banjo bluegrass very well, and the songs she wrote with Martin quite good. She also seems to be having a wonderful time.
(Years back, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, Steve Martin got some award, which was mainly a pretense to get him to show up and give a speech, which was very entertaining. At one point, when the floor was opened for questions, someone asked if he'd play the banjo, but he said he couldn't because he didn't bring a banjo with him. At that point, someone in the large audience yelled out, "I have one!!!" He ran up to the stage, and handed it to Martin who played a lively number, much of course to the wild delight of the crowd.)
Here's one song from the broadcast, which Martin introduces by talking about the bluegrass tradition of story songs and particularly those about murder, giving a few examples in a dry tone. And then adds his own to the portfolio, joined by Edie Brickell. Though being Steve Martin, it has its own wryness.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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