Steve Martin — comedian-actor-playwright-novelist — shows off another side of his multi-hyphenated self in Connecticut tonight..
The man who was once a "wild and crazy guy" gets down to some serious banjo pickin' when he and the Steep Canyon Rangers play Torrington's sold-out Warner Theatre. The tour highlights Martin's bluegrass CD "Rare Bird Alert," which includes contributions by Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks.
That's what happens when you become famous. You get to explore a relatively obscure form of music and still get other famous folks to work with you. You can also pack the house in a northern latitude that isn't exactly a banjo hot bed.
Martin said in a phone press conference that he doesn't see himself as an ambassador of bluegrass (know any other?) but merely a contributor to the cultural mix that fills halls like the Warner. A Chinese juggling troupe could be next, he said.
While Martin believes no audience is naive, most are not likely not to know a lot about bluegrass, so he and friends mix in comedy. (He composed a bluegrass version of "King Tut," a fan favorite of yore, for good measure).
"It's never one song after another," he said. "That could get old if you're not into the form of the music. We do a show. My feeling is that people leave really happy and maybe want to continue sampling this kind of music."
The real pressure is performing before aficionados who might be tougher judges of his musicianship, he explained. Think Kentucky.
But everywhere he goes, he attempts to break banjo stereotypes. You won't be seeing Martin and friends sucking on straw and wearing overalls with no shoes. They'll be in suits.
"Banjo jokes and bagpipe jokes are like Polish jokes," he said. "Now they're not really politically correct. So I'm trying to change that image. I'm trying to get it off on another instrument, maybe the harp."
The last time Martin came to Connecticut for a show, in 1997, he was promoting his off-Broadway hit "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" at the Stamford Center for the Arts. That was a few incarnations ago. Since then, the star and writer of such film comedies as "The Jerk," "Roxanne" and "Bowfinger" became an author ("Shop Girl," "The Pleasure of My Company," "An Object of Beauty") and a legitimate musician.
"Rare Bird Alert" follows his Grammy-winning 2009 album "The Crow." Martin was never really a dilettante. He's been playing since 1962, when he heard the Kingston Trio. He incorporated the five-string into his standup act and comedy albums in the 1970s, but being funny derailed his musical aspirations, as limited as they might have been with the banjo.
"I was always aiming to be in show business," he said. "And I really liked the idea of playing on stage. I liked the sort of ego trip of standing there and playing the banjo. I really liked that. But, you know, my heart was in comedy. And the fortunes led me to comedy."
Traveling on a tour bus brought him back to the good old days when he ruled the comedy world with his stand-up act. Only this time he's not solo, and he has the luxury of being able to fly back home when he wants. Heading an ensemble also has its advantages onstage. "I like the camaraderie of it," he said. "I like improving my musicianship."
Martin composed the title track based on his upcoming movie, "The Big Year," a goof with Owen Wilson and Jack Black on competitive bird watching. As one might expect, several other numbers elicit laughs, too. "Jubilation Day" recounts a welcomed romantic breakup. "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" speaks for itself.
The 65-year-old Renaissance man always comes back to jokes. He's even tweeting. On Kim Kardashian's recent, er, anatomy validation, he sent this missive to his 1.3 million Twitter followers: "I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, "I want to get x-rays to prove my butt's real." He also proposed to Alec Baldwin, his "It's Complicated" co-star and Oscars co-host.
"It's kind of like going back to old-fashioned comedy writing, but it's only 140 characters," he said. "When I used to write for television, if something didn't work, there was always next week."
His creative output astounds his peers, but Martin has a simple explanation.
"I don't have a job, you know. I don't go to work. I wake up, and there's hours in the day."
STEVE MARTIN and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform "An Evening of Bluegrass & Banjo" tonight at 8 at the Warner Theatre, 68 Main St., Torrington. The show is sold out. Information: 860-489-7180 or http://www.warnertheatre.org.