Bluegrass music may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering the career of Steve Martin, but the actor and stand-up comedian has made banjo playing a staple of his comedy since the ’70s.
Fans of “The Muppet Show” are familiar with Martin’s banjo skills from the “Dueling Banjos” skit of 1977, which found the comedian facing off against the Muppet jug band with some flashy finger-picking — a battle he reprised against Kermit the Frog in 2013. “Banjo boy” T-shirts were on sale in the Palace Theatre lobby before Martin’s performance Friday night, a sly reference to the hillbilly kid from the infamous “Dueling Banjos” scene in the movie “Deliverance.”
Five years ago, Martin took his banjo playing to a more serious level when he first went on the road with bluegrass group the Steep Canyon Rangers for a tour that stopped at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. At the time, Martin minimized the comedy to showcase the music, but this appearance at the Palace found him mining for yuks between nearly every song.
At the start, Martin came onstage in a blue blazer, bobbing up and down with a comedian’s nervous energy before launching into an opening comedy riff.
“The best way to listen to bluegrass is to close your eyes and imagine you’re in a rowboat … in a scary part of Kentucky,” he joked.
Much of the show that followed had a bit of a vaudeville feel — at least in how the focus on stage shifted from performer to performer, while the mood swung from silly to serious. The sharply dressed Steep Canyon Rangers joined Martin onstage for “Jubilation Day,” a funny Martin-sung tune about the joy of breaking away from a rotten relationship. Rangers lead singer Woody Platt took the lead on the straight-faced “Daddy Played the Banjo,” while Martin and fellow banjoist Graham Sharp matched notes on “The Crow.”
Martin then brought out Edie Brickell, the singer-songwriter best known for her quirky late ’80s radio hit “What I Am” with the New Bohemians — and for being married to Paul Simon. She and Martin released the album “Love Has Come For You” in 2013 and began touring together with the Steep Canyon Rangers. They also have a musical in the works.
The pair clearly has mutual respect and a creative partnership that works, and Brickell’s appearances onstage were highlights of the show. Brickell’s voice still has the distinctive, slightly raspy quality that characterized her ’80s work, but it sounded rich and captivating on the wistful “When You Get to Asheville,” the plaintive ballad “Yes She Did” — inspired by the Texas childhood of Brickell’s grandmother — and the tender “Love Has Come For You,” a song that won the pair a Grammy last year.
As appealing as Brickell was, animated Rangers fiddler Nicky Sanders had an energy unmatched by anyone on stage. With the frantic upswings of his bow he seemed to nearly lift himself off the ground, and his fiddle gymnastics stole the show on murder ballad “Pretty Little One,” the Rangers’ rave-up “As I Go” and the show-closing “Auden’s Train,” a crowd-pleaser that combined the words of poet W.H. Auden with locomotive-fast fiddle riffs by Sanders — mashing everything from mournful train sounds to pop song references like the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”