By David Menconi
DURHAM -- Back when he made his bones doing standup comedy, Steve Martin used to demonstrate why the banjo is the happiest of all instruments. He'd plunk out a tune on his banjo while crooning, "Oh death and grief and sorrow and murder" -- and yeah, it came out sounding kinda joyful.
But that was nothing compared to his Saturday night show at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Backed up by the Brevard bluegrass quintet Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin was musically and comedically droll from the moment he strode onstage in the white suit that has long been his trademark.
"Thank you and good night," he said in response to the audience's standing ovation, drawing the first of many laughs. "We're going to start with a song we have completely memorized!"
Almost all of the 22 songs they played during the two-hour-plus set were Martin's originals, including the opening "Pitkin County Turnaround." Everyone on the front line took a solo, including Martin himself, establishing his musical credibility right off the bat.
Martin is more than solid as a banjo player, although he's not as technically polished as the Rangers. The main difference comes across more obviously live than on-record, in that he's more self-conscious and less at-ease. He spent a great deal of time between songs tuning and struggling with capos on his four different banjos ("Because I have four very small penises," he quipped at one point).
"I'm out of tune," he said at one point. "No, I am in tune -- I was just playing badly!"
No, he did just fine. And the good part about the tuning intervals was that they gave Martin ample time to tell jokes, often with the Rangers as collective straight men. Introducing the breakup song "Jubilation Day," Martin asked rhetorically if they'd ever had anyone in their midst they desperately wanted to get rid of; the Rangers' wordless postures made for one of the best jokes of the night.
Other highlights included "Wally on the Run," a song about a game of fetch that concluded with an actual dog running onto the stage; Martin's recurrent jokes about Rangers guitarist Woody Platt's name (which he said sounded like it came from a "Bluegrass Name Generator"); "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," a gospel-style a capella tune sporting what might be the greatest terrible vocal in music history; and an encore version of "Orange Blossom Special" featuring virtuoso fiddle work from Nicky Sanders, who worked in flourishes of everything from the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" to Handel's "Messiah."
"A dilettante is someone who dabbles in things he knows nothing about," Martin said at one point. He might be a wild and crazy guy, but Martin ain't no dilettante.
email@example.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759