20 JUL 11 DAVID SHANNON
Steve Martin isn't kidding when he straps on a banjo. Well, sometimes he is, but humor mostly takes a backseat to instrumentation on Rare Bird Alert, Martin's Rounder Records collaboration with The Steep Canyon Rangers, the touted strings quintet nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2009 Album and Gospel Performance of the Year.
The instrumental title track gives notice straightaway that the material isn't a vehicle for Martin to wax comedic. With a blistering pace and a bracing melody, Martin and SCR -- made up of guitar, bass, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo -- clearly bring the string. "Northern Island" similarly speeds along, employing an opening line that channels up-to-date Charlie Daniels and an alternating minor/major chord tonality and mood that build tension and momentum.
Rare Bird Alert is also a study in harmony, both vocal and instrumental. "More Bad Weather On The Way" winds through intricate melodies, punctuated by SCR's vocal consonance, while "The Great Remember (For Nancy)" is an instrumental rumination between violin and banjo. Throughout the record Martin himself deftly switches between Scruggs style and clawhammer picking approaches.
The overall feeling of the album is something of a celebration, and like all good parties, this release can't resist a few laughs. Tracks like "Jubilation Day" and "Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back" combine Martin's trademark goofiness with serious chops. And, the version of Martin's late-'70s Saturday Night Live hit "King Tut" is a live, madcap revelation. Martin and SCR are playing a handful of dates through August. Check them out.