Steve Martin with The Steep Canyon Rangers, Royal Festival Hall, London

Rich pickings for comedy and bluegrass fans alike

"It's always been a dream of mine to play banjo at the Royal Festival Hall," says Steve Martin, banjo in hand, from the stage of the Royal Festival Hall. The briefest of pauses, and then: "And tonight, I feel one step closer to realising that dream." Written out like that, it doesn't seem quite as funny as it did earlier this evening – but then, comedy is all about timing and delivery. And jokes. And some other stuff too humorous to mention, probably.

Right from his early stand-up days, the banjo has been an essential component of Steve Martin's character. When he was performing, solo, to tens of thousands of baying punters in stadiums back in the early 1980s, the musical frying-pan was as much a part of his routine as the balloon animals, the absurdist monologues and, of course, the Happy Feet. Playing banjo, he used to claim, could rouse one from the deepest despair, because "You just can't play a sad song on the banjo."

Since then, save for an irresistible opportunity to play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, he's made infrequent, overly modest use of the instrument: only one half of one of his albums, The Steve Martin Brothers, was dedicated to his musical passion – until earlier this year, when he released The Crow, an album of original banjo pieces performed with such country music luminaries as Scruggs, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, John McEuen, and tonight's support act, Mary Black. With typical Martin mock-overstatement, it bore the claim: "This is the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe - and that includes possible alternative universes, too." It was nominated for six prizes at the annual Bluegrass Music Association awards, but, he notes dryly, won only the award for best liner-note. "But when I went up to collect my award, Kanye West jumped up on stage, protesting that Doc Watson's sleevenote was better!"

Tonight's set is built around The Crow, with the comedian backed by The Steep Canyon Rangers, a young North Carolina bluegrass ensemble with a nice line in acappella jubilee harmonies, as they demonstrate during a brief mid-set showcase while Steve leaves to drink beer. When he returns, he insists on them joining him in an atheist sing-song lamenting the lack of songs "for godless existentialists". The violinist is particularly adept, and effects brilliant impressions of canine barks and whines on a fiddle and banjo duet dedicated to Martin's dog Wally.

And for all his self-deprecation about his own playing - "Rolling Stone called this a 'worthwhile illegal download'," as he introduces a track called "Freddie's Lilt" – Martin proves no slouch himself, picking his way nimbly through a solo demonstration of clawhammer banjo technique, and swapping lines confidently with the other players throughout. And despite his former assertion as to the impermeable humourousness of the banjo's sound, he knows all too well that, undriven by speedy bluegrass imperatives, it can be as sad and lonely an instrument as any. The closest he gets to this aspect tonight is perhaps the poignant descending melody line of "Tin Roof", and the wistful "Words Unspoken" a supposed singalong lacking lyrics.

Elsewhere, he introduces "Saga Of The Old West" as having "elements of sadness and melancholy – like the expression on my agent's face when I told him I wanted to do a banjo tour". For the rest of us, though, the experience is entirely uplifting and joyous, not least for offering a rare opportunity to hear one of the greatest comedians of the last three decades sprinkle around a few of the rib-ticklers he long since ceased performing as a stand-up.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power