Album Review: Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers – “Rare Bird Alert” (Rounder)

Album Reviews, Features, Music — By on April 22, 2011 4:02 pm

Yes. That Steve Martin. Many of you may have seen Steve play the banjo on
Saturday Night Live or have heard it on his comedy albums, although these were
novelty performances at best. Rare Bird Alert is not a novelty. After winning a Grammy
for best bluegrass album in 2010 for The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo,
one would assume that Steve had solidified a respectable reputation in the music
industry, but for the star of The Jerk, his reputation will always be of the jester. No
matter what he does, we will all see Steve as an actor and comedian first. Every time
Steve writes an album he is going to need to prove himself as a musician. This may be
frustrating for the musician, but I believe it will be this constant need for approval that
will give him a unique edge in his song writing.

The structure of Rare Bird Alert infers that Steve is well aware of the adversity he
will face in the bluegrass culture. As the album starts, the listener expects the jocular
tone of Steve Martin to shine through, but this is not that record. The first track, which
bares the albumʼs name, is a purely instrumental example of Steveʼs picking ability. The
song leads out of the gate by forcing a new reputation of Steve Martin on the listener.
He proves that comedic lyrics will not define his musical career, and this is not the
image he will be selling.

I do not want to give the impression that Steve Martin is some kind of reformed,
right winged, good-ole-boy — heʼs not. But Steve cannot help but add humor to any
mundane activity including the traditionally conservative world of bluegrass. Track
twelve, “Atheists Donʼt Have No Songs”, is Steveʼs way of poking at this very issue.

On the sixth track, “Jubilation Day”, Steveʼs jovial songwriting begins to shine
through. The lyrics for the final eight songs are very comedic, but this does not
invalidate this as a true bluegrass album. The lyrics are backed up by such well developed
songwriting and delightful musicianship that they hold up against any contemporary
bluegrass out there.

Steve may be an excellent banjo player, although this album would not exist
without a plethora of talented musicians that supplement his sound. The Steep Canyon
Rangers are Steveʼs back up band on a majority of a tracks, which feature acoustic
guitar, stand up bass, mandolin, fiddle and an additional banjo. Sir Paul McCartney
sings on the single-worthy “Best Love,” and the Dixie Chicks accompany Steve on the
beautifully orchestrated “You.”

This is an album for fans of contemporary bluegrass as well the comedic stylings
of Steve Martin. The albumʼs booklet features a phrenological study of Steve Martinʼs
head. In this study it shows Steve Martin as an author, playwright, actor, composer,
comedian, banjo player, art collector, eruditer, magician and a human cannonball. It is a
testament to anyone who has felt that society considers his or her talent one-dimensional.

I commend Steve for not being intimidated to exhibit his many talents, and I
appreciate the entertainment that ensued from his expression. Hopefully the success of
this album will push Steve further down a musicianʼs path and direct him away from
making another G-rated movie.

Steve Martin is currently on a US tour in support of the album. Tour dates and venues
can be found on his website:

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