Recording information: The Fox Performing Arts Center, Riverside, CA.
Photographer: Saam Gabbay.
In the early '80s, Steve Martin gave up a wildly successful career as a standup comic to focus on acting, becoming a bankable film star, and enjoying rewarding sidelines as an author and playwright. But decades later, Martin took a route back to live performing by turning to his skills as a banjo player -- he'd long used the banjo as part of his stage act, and his final comedy LP, 1981's The Steve Martin Brothers, featured one side of jokes and another of bluegrass-influenced instrumentals. In 2009, Martin released an all-music album called The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, and he was soon touring regularly in tandem with the progressive bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers. Four years into their collaboration, Martin and the Rangers have become a strong live act who don't have to rely on his gags to please a crowd (though the gags are certainly welcome), as evidenced by this album, taken from a show recorded for broadcast on PBS. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell Live absolutely lives up to its title, with Martin and the band joined on several numbers by singer/songwriter Brickell, who collaborated with Martin on the 2013 album Love Has Come for You. While Martin is funny, he's not a great vocalist, so Brickell brings a strong set of pipes, some fine lyrics, and a warm stage presence to this show, and given her wildly uneven body of work since scoring a hit in 1988 with "What I Am," her work with Martin ranks with the best music she's made since her debut. The Steep Canyon Rangers are in superb form here, filling out the tunes with expert playing and richly imaginative arrangements. For the most part, Martin is content to play the banjo in this concert, and if he's something short of a virtuoso, he's certainly talented and possesses a strong melodic sense, which he displays on original compositions like "Daddy Played the Banjo" and "The Crow." And to no one's surprise, when Martin does go for a laugh, it works, especially on the a cappella number "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," as well as the witty but mordant "Pretty Little One," which shifts gears midway from a love song to a murder ballad. Martin is hardly the first actor of note to take a flier at music, but his 21st century albums have proved he's no dilettante, and Live confirms he can go on-stage without a net and emerge with flying colors; if he wanted to keep doing this instead of another Pink Panther sequel, most fans would probably consider it time better spent. ~ Mark Deming