Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Banjo Face

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My niece Shanna (rhymes with “Ghana”) and I went to see Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers play bluegrass last weekend up in Flagstaff. You might be thinking, Steve Martin plays in a band? Isn’t he the guy with the arrow through his head? The wild and crazy guy?

Yes indeed, it’s the same Steve Martin…but now he’s a wildly accomplished banjo player and he tours around with this group of crazy-talented musicians. They’ve done the White House and Carnegie Hall. Last weekend they did an amphitheater in the woods.

Shanna and I had eleventh-row seats right by the stage; we’d lucked out and were not way back on the lawn area. However, the seating area was cramped and disorganized and when we showed our tickets to the guy in charge, he became agitated because there was no eleventh row. He was unsuccessful in prying two seated concert-goers out of their folding chairs because he thought we belonged there; the seated people vehemently disagreed. Finally the guy shouted at Mike Somebody, “MIKE! THERE IS NO ROW ELEVEN! ROW ELEVEN DOES NOT EXIST!”

Shanna and I stood patiently. We’re from Minnesota.

Eventually, Row Eleven materialized and we parked our butts on the hard folding chairs that were pushed together so tightly that when we turned to look at one another, our noses touched. Big Foot was seated directly in front of me, taking up two folding chairs as a matter of fact, so if I wanted to see the stage, I had to lean right and left.

But none of this mattered when Steve Martin walked onto the stage. I’ve had a crush on this man since I was eleven years old and saw The Jerk and am not ashamed to admit that I’ve written many fan letters to Steve over the years, asking for friendship, romance…any type of relationship he wanted, really. He never replied, but he was here now, in the flesh. He probably knew I was coming.

I’ve been to many concerts, but have never heard such thunderous applause and howls for a performer walking out to greet the audience for the first time. The entire amphitheater erupted with energy and adoration, all of us here to see Steve Martin. Steve Martin.

He grinned and graciously waited for us to pipe down…then he gave us the show of our lives, fingers flying so fast on that banjo that all you saw was a blur. I never considered myself a true bluegrass fan before, but now that I’ve heard the banjo like that with the mandolin, bass, guitar, fiddle, and yet another banjo, I might never listen to Van Halen again. No more John Cougar, no more Edith Piaf. Just Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers going crazy-wild on their instruments. That's all I need...

And they were having a good time too, especially Steve. The most surprising part of this show was that he’s still funny. I thought he would be serious the whole time, but he still does those fake-snooty jokes, like the one from his 70’s routine when somebody in a restaurant asks him, “Mind if I smoke?” and he replies, “No. Mind if I fart?” On stage in the woods though, his jokes ran more along the lines of, “You might think that this is my band, but in reality, I’m their celebrity.”

For two hours I leaned back and forth, crowding Shanna on the right and a lady on my left, trying to see the stage around Big Foot, who has very good posture by the way and sat up straight the entire time, his broad furry shoulders a wall to me. It took me awhile to figure out that there were five members of the band in addition to Steve; I never saw all of them at once, even though I was fifty feet away. I didn’t so much see this concert as peek at it.

But no matter: it was the greatest concert ever, even Shanna said so, and she’s only 32. Imagine a young’un like that giving such high praise to Steve Martin playing the banjo and telling funny stories. Steve Martin.

We were on our way out after a couple of encores when Steve and the band came out one more time. Everyone stopped in their tracks—a huge crowd of people carrying sleeping children and folded blankets—to hear the final song.

It was “King Tut” (“He’s my favorite honkey/born in Arizona”). I cannot express my complete and utter joy at hearing Steve Martin perform “King Tut” live. I never would have imagined it. It sprang to my bucket list and crossed itself off. I could have died happily in that moment.

As Shanna and I wandered through the dark woods trying to find my car, we contemplated our good fortune and reviewed the night. “Did you notice that his hair stuck up on top of his head?” I said.

“Yeah,” Shanna said. “Maybe he forgot to comb it.” We snickered.

“Did you notice that look on his face when he was playing?” I said.

“Yeah, that was weird. Maybe that’s his banjo face.”

I thought about that: banjo face. That was Steve Martin concentrating on doing an excellent job: eyes half closed, mouth set in a straight line, teeth probably clenched—almost like he was looking into a wind storm. That’s definitely not how he looked in Father of the Bride. I think he’s happier playing the banjo.

We had come to Flagstaff to see Steve Martin in part to celebrate the beginning of the school year, a treat for two teachers before the hard work starts. Three days later—one hour, in fact, before I go into my first class of the semester—I hope my students recognize my own banjo face. I hope they see how excited I am to be there with them.

I hope they love me as much as I love Steve Martin.


  1. That's awesome! I'm a big bluegrass fan myself, and can't imagine an evening I'd enjoy much more!

    Keep the banjo face for your TRUE fans, though...


  2. I love this. I would have stood on my head if that were the only way to be there.

  3. "It sprang to my bucket list and crossed itself off."