When Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers appeared in Music City two years ago, they put on their show at The Woods at Fontanel, a venue whose outdoorsiness felt more than a little bit familiar to any bluegrass fan. This time around, they're at the Schermerhorn, and while it would be easy to make too much out of the contrast in settings, that doesn't mean there's nothing to be gleaned at all from the change. Perhaps the last show, at least in part, made the case that Martin was a legit bluegrass banjo player, whereas this one makes the case that he's a banjo player, period — one whose interest in the instrument and its possibilities is grounded in, but nevertheless transcends, the conventions of the genre.
The difference is obvious in Martin's latest album, Love Has Come for You (Rounder), a full-fledged collaboration with singer (and, here, lyricist) Edie Brickell in which the Steeps play a more limited role — a few vocal turns, a couple of fiddle parts and a bit of mandolin, but not much more. The set, produced by Peter Asher, keeps a bright light on Martin's banjo, whether it's played in the three-fingered bluegrass fashion or the older clawhammer style. Still, the album brings Brickell's nifty blend of urbane and rustic singing right alongside, and frames both with spare, considered touches of string quartet, acoustic and electric guitars, percussion and more. The Steeps as themselves, so to speak, appear only on the affable "Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby."
Out on the road, though, the quintet is indispensible. For one thing, bassist Charles Humphrey notes, the first half of the program — there's an intermission, something new for what has become a well-honed show — is still all about Steve and the Steeps; Brickell's turn comes in the second half. "The way we're breaking it up is pretty cool," says Humphrey, adding that while the first set may include a few new tunes, it mostly focuses on Martin's earlier bluegrass albums. "We know those songs, and we know each other pretty well by now."
The second part, well, that's more of a challenge. "We're learning to play the arrangements the way that Peter did them on the record," says Ranger Mike Guggino, who plays mandolin and mostly sings tenor for the group. "And those arrangements weren't made for us, or even necessarily for what we play. So I'm playing mandolin and mandola sometimes, but I'm also playing some percussion, and there are some places where I'll play string quartet parts on a keyboard synthesizer. Other times [fiddler] Nicky [Hopkins] will play one line, I'll play another on the mandolin or mandola, and Charles will play another with a bow. Our banjo guy, Graham, plays some electric guitar, we've got a drummer with us — it's a whole different thing."
Indeed it is, and not only because of the way that re-creating these studio arrangements for the stage stretches the Rangers' talents in some new directions. Love Has Come for You's songs are different, too. The title track was an early and largely impromptu collaboration — Martin played Brickell a tune he'd been working on, she wrote some words — that started to bubble up in set lists before the project had really gotten its legs. But as the work went on, it sounds as though it began to engage, albeit in slo-mo, the kind of back-and-forth that often characterizes the best songwriting partnerships.
To be sure, a banjo will always sound pretty much like a banjo, but Martin's palette seems to have broadened in the course of writing the album's songs. The melodic symmetry that characterizes his previous work — by now, it's undeniable that he has a serious gift for distinctive and memorable melodies — is still there, but there's a stronger rhythmic component now, exemplified in songs like "Get Along Stray Dog," where the interplay between Martin and the background percussion pushes his playing to the point where melody begins to take a back seat to forceful pinches and nearly distorting slides. Whether it's working with Asher or with Brickell — or more likely, with both — that's led Martin down this road, there's no doubt that it's a productive one.
In something of the same way, the experience is helping to move the Steeps, too. Masters of a tough balancing act, they've reached a point in their work with Martin where they function as one über-sized band while working hard not just to keep their own identity, but to develop it too — and indeed, their own last project, Nobody Knows You, earned them a Grammy. It's a bold collection of songs that makes no concessions to bluegrass formula even as it remains largely within the genre's framework.
So while the show may have the look of something familiar, and while it's going to have plenty of familiar elements for Steve-and-the-Steeps fans of long standing, there's something new and nifty going on, too — new enough to encourage them to trade the great outdoors for a symphony hall, and nifty enough to make them glad they did.