Sunday, June 24, 2012

Steep Canyon Rangers: Des Moines 6/23/12

The Steep Canyon Rangers wasted no time capturing hearts in Des Moines.

Along with comedian and legendary banjo slinger Steve Martin, this band played to a full house tonight, becoming what I imagine is the first bluegrass concert to sell out the Des Moines Civic Center. And they brought the house down.

Two parts music and one part comedy, the entire night was a showcase of talent that literally had to be seen to be completely recognized for what it was - one of the greatest nights of entertainment that Des Moines has seen in years. Forget about Bon Jovi being here last year or Jimmy Buffet just a few week ago. And don't try to tell me that when Journey plays the Iowa State Fair every year that it is something to behold.

Screw all of that.

These bands aren't exactly paving a new direction when it comes playing unique and unsuspecting sets. Instead of bringing something new to the musical stage, they rely on prefabricated oldies that any sub-par band in the country can recreate on any Saturday night at any local tavern. It's hashed and rehashed.

And even smoking hash doesn't provide enough stimulus to make their sound interesting.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
(Photo by Bigfoot Diaries)
But tonight in Des Moines a little known five-piece bluegrass outfit out of western North Carolina roused a crowd of 2730 to one standing ovation after another, playing an entire 100 minute set without the benefit of a single radio hit.

It was incredible.

Of course it didn't hurt that they were joined onstage by the funniest man in the world, the one and only Steve Martin. He also happens to be freak on the banjo, probably one of the top five to  have ever played the instrument. And while his presence is undeniably the reason so many people bought a ticket to see this show (It sold out the day tix went on sale back in March), every single person in the audience left the concert with the Steep Canyon Rangers on their personal radar. In other words, they were treated to something new, something that they didn't expect, and something that affected them at their very soul.

Aside from the encore, the biggest ovation of the night came after the Rangers played a song by themselves without the accompaniment of Steve Martin. It was an instrumental piece that featured the blazing fingers of Mike Guggino on his mandolin. Following that was an A Capella gospel number called "I Can't Sit Down," a treat that had many in the stunned audience gasping in amazement.

At the conclusion of this song, Martin rejoined his band onstage, the crowd still on it's feet offering thunderous applause. He seemed to soak it up a bit, as if he had everything to do with it. "I tell these guys that they sing that song so well." He said. "I can't wait until they are good enough to play it with instruments!"

Another song highlight was "Best Love," a legitimate love song that Steve Martin had written in honor of his wife. In concert it features Woody Platt on vocals, on the album (Rare Bird Alert), it features Sir Paul McCartney. I say legitimate love song because most of the "ballads" played during the night had more to do with shenanigans and breaking up than actually being in love. "Best Love" does have an element of humor to it, but easily charms itself into the category of a great song. Platt's vocals were flawless, and it's catchy jingle-like lyrics made for a lot of toe-tapping in the audience.

You look in good in fancy dresses
Wish we bought that one that day
I even like your old ex boyfriend
You are my best love


"Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back," was another classic from the Rare Bird Alert CD that twists together the unlikely pair of bluegrass music and humor. Aside from basically describing the history of my love life to a tee, this song also features a blistering banjo solo from Graham Sharp.

"His name is Graham, like a cracker." Martin explained to the audience. Then he paused and gritted his teeth. "Ooh, this is awkward."  He said.

Sharp is an excellent banjo player in his own right, and for his part, he hangs with Steve Martin quite nicely. I can only imagine that the only thing more difficult than playing the banjo is playing the banjo alongside somebody else. Sharp did this without flaw, playing the right notes and style in perfect accompaniment without imposing too heavily on the styles and notes that Martin was playing. It sounded smooth and not jumbled or crowded, as one might expect.

The Steep Canyon Rangers cuttin' it.
(Photo by Bigfoot Diaries)
Along with Platt on guitar and vox, Sharp on banjo, and Guggino on the mandolin, the Rangers are rounded out by Charles Humphrey on bass, and Nicky Sanders on the violin. Each member plays a vital role in fulfilling the complete sound of the band and maintaining the tightness that they have achieved. They also play well along with Martin, who constantly undermines them with his comedic banter between songs. But it's obvious that he respects the hell out of these guys.

Nicky Sanders' talent became especially apparent during the final song of the night, a number called "Auden's Train." Not only was he able to mimic a train horn identically, he also managed to squeeze parts of about 6 recognizable songs into one long violin solo. There was "Norwegian Wood," William Tell Overture," and "Live an Let Die," plus a Beach Boys song, and a couple of others I recognized but can't place a name for. It was a flurried crescendo  to a great night of music, and the crowd was mesmerized, yearning for every last note they could get.

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Pertinent links:

Steep Canyon Rangers Official Site

Steep Canyon Rangers on Facebook

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