Steve Martin on Banjo at the Rubin: "My Hit Single 'King Tut' Was Not a Fluke"

He may have lost to Kris Allen on American Idol, but Steve Martin and his banjo album "The Crow" landed on the pop charts this week, his first time back there since 1981's EP "The Steve Martin Brothers." Yet if we were guessing that his new Billboard status might have had something to do with his brand name or the bluegrass firepower he brings with him on his new record - Mary Black, Vince Gill, Tim O'Brien, Dolly Parton along with banjo masters Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick and Tony Trischka - the joke is, well, on us.

That was the verdict last night at the Rubin Museum of Art, after the award winning comedian-actor-playwright-novelist-memoirist rounded out an intimate two-night residency with a mesmerizing display of banjo pickin', songwritin', a bit of singing (his voice doesn't quite warrant the apostrophe) and, yes, jokes. "This is a song," he began with a folkly lilt, "well -- that pretty much says it." Even tuning his instrument between songs drew hair-trigger giggles and hollers.

But it was the songs themselves that drew the biggest reaction. How did it feel to be on the pop charts again after 27 years, I asked him later. "This proves that my hit single, "King Tut," was not a fluke."

The comedian known for his wacky banjo playing seemed a little determined to be something more like the banjo player with the wacky sense of humor. Why else had he traded his trademark white suit for near-black pinstripes? "Beats me," shrugged his wife Anne Stringfield when we asked. "The gravitas?"

On the nostalgic "Daddy Played the Banjo," Martin showed off not only some deft and swift fingering but revealed a lyrical imagination refreshingly heart-felt (the lyrics came from an intentionally bad poem he wrote, but "they made for a good country song"). Even the funny song he sings, "Late for School," had a down-home sweetness to it, and wouldn't be out of place on a children's album, which isn't a bad thing at all.

If, for a moment, the city slicker audience managed to pull its eyes away from Martin, they might have thought they were in the hands of a some progressive Carolinian master. (And they were in the hands of a few: halfway through, Martin left the stage to let his backup band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, take over for a rollicking virtuosic performance.)

But the audience was stuck on the wild and crazy Renaissance guy, hanging on every pluck and quip, and probably at times thinking something like, he's not funny or awe-inspiring - he is a little scary. Agnes Gund, a pal through Martin's art collecting, sat glued down in front. "I've known him for years but never seen this before," she said afterward. "He's really great."

There was modesty and fake pompousness ("I'm in front here, because, you know, I'm the guy," he explained. Later: "I made a deal with Graham [Sharp, the other banjo player] - every time I make a mistake he has to make one too.")

But he also crushed any doubts about his chops with "Clawhammer Melody," a mash-up of standards on which he showed off the unusual style of clawhammering, or frailing. Instead of being pulled by three fingers, like the way Earl Scruggs does it, Martin depresses the banjos's strings with five fingers - a particularly challenging technique, but one at which he's considered a master.

He's also a master at some other things, and he took plenty of opportunities to hit comedic notes. He did it effortlessly too, without anything like a routine. "This song is so great that I wish I wrote it," he said of "Orange Blossom Special," an old train standard. "And I was thinking about it recently, and I realized, 'Hey, I did write it!'"

He didn't, but he did change one line, intoning the chorus that first made him famous: "King Tut!"

Before he played his new album's title track, an eye-opening duo with banjo master Trischka, Martin said it had became a minor hit in the bluegrass world.

"And in the bluegrass world," he quipped, "a minor hit is a major hit."

Steve will perform two shows tomorrow night at the Grand Ole Opry, accompanied by Vince Gill, Amy Grant, John McEuen and Tim O'Brien. And he'll be on the Jimmy Fallon Show on Tuesday.

cross-posted at Paper