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Steve Martin, Edie Brickell, Steep Canyon Rangers combine for rousing show

Edie Brickell (center) Steve Martperformed concert Thursday night Chicago Theatre. | JEFF ELBEL PHOTO

Edie Brickell (center) and Steve Martin performed in concert Thursday night at the Chicago Theatre. | JEFF ELBEL PHOTO

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“Katie Mae”

“Rare Bird Alert”

“Jubilation Day”

“The Crow”

“Get Along Stray Dog”

“When You Get to Asheville”


“Yes She Did”

“Love Has Come For You”/ “Knob Creek”

“I Can’t Sit Down”

“Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”

“The Great Remember”/ “Sun’s Gonna Shine”


“Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby”

“Pretty Little One”

“Auden’s Train”


“The Dance at the Wedding”

“Remember Me This Way”

“Pour Me Another Round”/ “So Long Now”

Updated: July 26, 2013 4:57PM

During his early career as a cutting-edge stand-up comic, Steve Martin’s talent on the banjo was part of an unusual bag of tricks. One cut from his platinum-selling “Let’s Get Small” album (1977) asserted that disgraced President Richard Nixon might have fared better had he traveled with the instrument. “I’d like to talk about politics,” said Martin’s Nixon. “But first, a little ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’”

The scorching bluegrass riff that ensued was etched at young age into my memory, where it has since replayed regularly. Thursday’s concert at the Chicago Theatre by Steve Martin with his formidable friends the Steep Canyon Rangers and singer Edie Brickell provided a welcome opportunity to absorb some of Martin’s newer licks.

Although the Steep Canyon Rangers lack Martin’s name recognition within pop culture, they possess ample clout within bluegrass circles. Alongside eight albums, the North Carolina-based quintet owns a Grammy statue for best bluegrass album. The entire band oozed talent, but their showstopper was Nicky Sanders. The world-class fiddler careened through “Auden’s Train” at lightning speed, infusing his cartwheeling solo with recognizable snippets ranging from “The Barber of Seville’s” overture to “The Simpsons” theme song.

Martin and the Rangers began working together in 2009, appearing on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show. Their collaborative “Rare Bird Alert” album followed in 2011. “There’s Steve Martin, just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train,” joked Martin following the title track and its sparkling display of Scruggs-style picking.

Martin sang lead for the funny “Jubilation Day,” describing a giddy escape from a toxic relationship. “Not all breakups are bad,” said Martin. Upright bassist Charles Humphrey took an appropriately liberated solo.

Edie Brickell gained attention in the late ‘80s with the tie-dyed pop of the New Bohemians. An easygoing singing style and North Texas drawl suited her folksy new lyrics, which spun tall tales from everyday life. The title cut from Martin and Brickell’s “Love Has Come For You” album praised a lifelong blessing borne of scandalous circumstances. With locomotive rhythm, “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby” told of an abandoned infant rescued from a steam train.

Martin made wisecracks and stuck close to his five banjos, but joined Brickell in deceptively upbeat unison for “Yes She Did.” Brickell’s lyrics spoke the tragic tale of a mother’s suicide. “I thought I’d sent her a happy little banjo song,” said Martin, describing the pair’s collaborative process.

Ticketholders arrived expecting an evening devoted to bluegrass and new music. The New Bohemians’ hit “What I Am” was not revisited as an Appalachian banjo jaunt. The live version from “Rare Bird Alert” notwithstanding, there were no “King Tut” shenanigans. What the top-caliber musicians did offer was clearly a labor of deep love. The audience response was thunderous.

Rangers bandleader Woody Platt was absent due to family issues. The crowd might have remained unaware, thanks to skillful substitute Chris Eldridge of the Punch Brothers. Martin, however, revealed the tip-off. “He’s the only member of the band laughing at the jokes,” he said.

Jeff Elbel is a local free-lance writer.

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