Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers,
Rare Bird Alert
(Rounder, 2011)

I like Steve Martin as a comedic actor, and I like the Steep Canyon Rangers (whom I've reviewed in this space on a couple of occasions) as a bluegrass band. Still, the thought and practice of them together did not compel me to pick up their previous release, the all-instrumental The Crow. While Martin's interest in bluegrass is longstanding and sincere and he's a capable banjo picker, the notion struck me as gimmicky, something of no more than passing novelty and certainly not for the hard-core likes of me.

Well, Rare Bird Alert, which showed up unexpectedly in my mail recently, is actually quite good. It's good in large part because it plays on the strengths of both parties, namely Martin's absurdist humor and the Rangers' musical chops. Martin writes or co-writes all of the cuts, both instrumentals and songs, bringing a distinctive sensibility -- comedic, intellectual, melodic and informed -- to the project. The Rangers play bluegrass and handle harmonies and sometimes lead vocals as well. They don't surprise because anyone who's heard them knows they're as proficient as any outfit on the current bluegrass scene.

The guest acts, each appearing on one cut, are Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks. Since the Chicks started out as a bluegrass band, their presence is unshocking, and predictably, they acquit themselves well on "You." McCartney, on the other hand, is here because Martin is famous enough to get McCartney to appear. It is with relief I can report that on "Best Love" -- another of the unbluegrassy titles on the program, by the way -- he is not a jutting sore thumb. That's because Martin is able to bring pop elements into bluegrass songs without undermining their genre flavor. That said, "Best Love" is among my least favorite cuts -- purely, I need add, a matter of personal taste. I'm just not that big on pop music, even with banjos.

By way of contrast, the opening instrumental and title tune, with Martin playing the older clawhammer style (which he does throughout, handing over Scruggs banjo to the Rangers' Graham Sharp), sounds much like a modernized old-time piece. The darkly hilarious "Jubilation Day" echoes a certain strain of bluegrass sentiment that anybody who knows the genre will recognize instantly and laugh accordingly. "Yellow-Backed Fly" would fit comfortably into the repertoire of any bluegrass band anywhere.

It's nice to be reminded on occasion that not all surprises are unhappy ones. Or to put it another way, Rare Bird flies higher than I would have anticipated. I suspect The Crow does, too.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 April 2011

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