Odd because, let's face it, unless you're a diehard bluegrass fan, you probably didn't know that the SNL-alum, best-selling novelist and bona fide Hollywood hot property was also a serious bluegrass banjo picker. How serious? His 2009 release, "The Crow: New Songs For Five-String Banjo," won a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. Legends of the genre like Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, Tim O'Brien, Tony Trischka and Dolly Parton shared credits on the album. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band mainstay John McEuen produced.
He proved his chops on Sunday night, striding onto the stage in his trademark white sport coat, surrounded by the dapper and award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers. A North Carolina quintet at ease equally in the Grand Ole Opry and Bonaroo (where they performed with Martin just recently), they've clearly worked out how to serve as straight men to Martin's antics -- without ever having to cover for him musically.
And while no one's ever going to mistake Martin for Bela Fleck, that wasn't the point here on the road. Martin was part of the band and the team, taking and trading solos and just as happy to sit on a stool out of the spotlight to give his bandmates their moments of glory.
From the opening notes of "Pitkin County Turnaround," through the grass-ified and still uproariously funny "King Tut" encore an hour and a half later, Martin anchored the Rangers with his own songs, picking and claw-hammering with passion, dexterity and ease. Standout moments included the building storm of "Saga of the Old West" and the melodic "Words Unspoken." On "Wally on the Run," a musical interpretation of playing catch with man's best friend, Ranger fiddler Nicky Sanders coaxed dog-like barks and whines from his instrument before Martin's real-life dog, Wally, made an appearance on stage.
If there is one discipline Martin hasn't mastered, it's the high, lonesome tenor harmonies of classic bluegrass. Ranger Woody Platt handled most of the lead vocals. The quintet harmonized so close the hair on your neck stood up. And Martin played his booming stage voice for laughs on his own "Jubilation Day," and a fierce take on "Orange Blossom Special." Like the jokes Martin often cracked at their expense between songs, the band seemed happy to play the foil.
And he was funny for sure, shooting off quips about his iPad set list, mocking his wrinkle-free dress pants being a testament to his "steaming hot ass," and pulling a cold beer out of Charles R. Humphrey's bass stand-up base before turning the stage over to the Rangers for a three song set.
When he returned, he and the quintet melded humor and musicianship in an acapella ditty called "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," paying tribute to the influence of old time religion on bluegrass, while playing it for laughs at the same time. (Here they perform it at the New Orleans Jazzfest.)
Christians have their hymns and pages. Hava Nagila is or the Jews. Baptists have the Rock of Ages. Atheists just sing the blues. Romantics play Clair de Lune. Born Agains sing "He is risen." But no one ever wrote a tune. For Godless existentialism.
It was a perfect moment. Because for Martin, funny as he is, Sunday night was really all about the music.
The Punch Brothers were the perfect opening act. Though they sported a classic bluegrass line-up of fiddle, banjo, upright bass, mandolin and guitar, they slipped and slithered through enough oddball time signatures and key changes to make a Dead or Zappa fan nod knowingly. And between the numbers in their 11-song, 45-minute stint on stage, mando maestro Chris Thile and banjo Brother Noam Pikelny traded deadpan humor that warmed the house for the hijinks to come.