Music review

Steve Martin at Heinz Hall: What is High Brow?

Monday night Steve Martin and his backing bluegrass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, graced the stage of Heinz Hall to a sold out crowd. Edie Brickell also joined in on stage from time to time. It’s interesting that regardless of the art form, anything played or performed in such a venue instantly becomes high brow. Heinz Hall is classy, the concert goers were well dressed, the ushers had little flashlights. With such an atmosphere one comes to expect the epitome of talent and yet, the performance, well rehearsed as it was, seemed rather out of sorts for the venue. Realistically there may be no other adequate venue for such a popular artist but the culture that was cultivated seemed forced.

That is not to say that the performance was a disaster or that comedy or even bluegrass has no place in Heinz Hall. The comedy was good. It was intelligent, sophisticated, and entertaining. The musicianship was superb. Steve Martin is a well seasoned and creative banjo player, the Steep Canyon Rangers are virtuosos on their respective instruments and their harmonies, at times showcasing five parts, were beautiful. Edie Brickell’s voice is angelic. Seemingly all the right pieces are in place for a performance worthy of Heinz Hall, a well dressed audience, and ushers with little flashlights. But, in the combination of all of these parts, something went awry.

While Steve Martin is a superb banjo player, the same cannot be said for his singing voice. Even when he wasn’t performing a comedy song it was hard to take seriously. His voice is dry with little range and much less amplification–a garish contrast to the harmonies that were developing behind him.

Edie Brickell, with her slight southern drawl and pristine feminine delivery, is not much of a lyricist. This is unfortunate as she wrote all of the lyrics for the collaborative effort Love Has Come For You, which brought the pair to Pittsburgh. You’ll remember Edie Brickell from Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians–the smash hit “What I am” still haunts any mind capable of comprehending pop music from 1988, (“What I am, is what I am, is…” whatever) her lyrics today lack just as much substance as they did when the Cold War was entering its twilight.

As far as the Steep Canyon Rangers are concerned, no complaints. They were perfect. In fact, the most enjoyable part of the show was when Steve and Edie left the Rangers to perform a few songs by themselves or, when Steve and the Rangers played an instrumental piece. That dynamic was certainly high brow.

Of course, it’s difficult to present a negative review of someone like Steve Martin. He is hilarious and his on stage banter was entertaining. Unfortunately, due to the dissonance created by the elite musicianship of the backing band against the low quality singing of Steve Martin and Edie Brikell’s lyrics, Heinz Hall felt a little underwhelming.