Whether you’re a bluegrass aficionado or a pop fan who prefers his stringed instruments plugged into a stack of Marshall amplifiers, Martin will make sure you leave his show with a new appreciation of the instrument.
As the featured performer at the third annual Symphony Gala Concert at the Woodruff Arts Center Saturday night, Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, the tremendous North Carolina quintet that has played with him the past few years, unveiled an hour of songs that showcased musicianship at its most primal.
With a heavy assist from the always-stellar Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – conducted by Scott Dunn – Martin, clad in a bright red outfit, and his dark-suited gang rolled through back porch strummers (“Daddy Played the Banjo,” which Martin co-write with Earl Scruggs’ son, Gary) and bulldozed through spirited romps (“The Crow,” the title song from Martin’s Grammy-winning 2009 album).
Through it all, Martin maintained a wonderful deadpan rapport with the Steep Canyon Rangers and the sold-out Symphony Hall audience (“This next song is a singalong, but it has no lyrics so…good luck!” “The fact that I played banjo for the President of the United States has to be one of the biggest thrills of his life”).
Of his five banjos lined across the back of the stage Martin quipped, “It’s just a big ego trip.”
Though casual fans are more likely to always peg him as a comedian, actor and author, Martin, who recently talked with usabout how he’s played banjo since his teen years, is an exceptionally nimble five-string player. Most often he used the “Scruggs-style” three-finger method of playing, but sometimes, as on the fluid lullaby “The Great Remember,” performed sans Rangers and orchestra, he demonstrated the old-time “clawhammer” style.
While it’s never a hardship watching a musician as masterful as Martin play alone, his collaborations with the Rangers – recent Grammy winners themselves – were completely joyful.
The vocal piece “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” was as amusing as it sounds (“In the songs they have a rule: the ‘h’ is always lowercase,” went the chorus), but it was the steamrolling instrumental based on the W.H. Auden poem “Calypso” that earned the team a well-deserved ovation, particularly fiddle player Nicky Sanders, who managed to drop in pop culture song references – “Norwegian Wood” among them – as he and the symphony created pitch-perfect train sounds on their instruments.
The rest of the Rangers – singer/guitarist Woody Platt, mandolin player Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp and upright bassist Charles Humphrey III – helped Martin turn the closing “Me and Paul Revere” into another rousing foot-stomper, for certain making converts out of more than a few people in the building.