Comedian Steve Martin has been cracking people up with his uniquely wild and crazy style of comedy for decades on his albums, in films like “The Jerk” and long ago on Saturday Night Live.
But all the while Martin has also been playing the banjo, and on Monday he and bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers are making their debut with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. The show is being billed as “An Evening of Comedy and Bluegrass.” But since Martin and the other musicians are going to be in town for a few days they decided to stop by the Paul Revere House in the North End to perform a tiny, surprise concert.
Tourists and fans found out about this pop-up concert at the last minute — through Twitter, various websites or by accident while touring through the North End. Many of them didn’t know exactly what to expect. Like a lot of people, Deanna Duffy of Knoxville, Tenn., mainly knows Steve Martin for his comedy — not his banjo playing.
“You know I have heard about it a little bit,” Duffy said, “but I never sat down and listened to it — so it will be interesting.”
And the show was indeed funny from the get go. As Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers got ready to perform their song, “Me and Paul Revere,” Martin looked at the television crews in front of the band and yelled: “Woo, we made the news!”
The crowd laughed and he added, “We made more news than Paul Revere!” More laughter followed.
People were gleeful to be sitting just feet away from Martin, who is something of a modern day Renaissance man. He's a successful comedian, author, playwright, actor, film director and musician.
Boston resident Tim Corrigan said he was on cloud nine since reading about this mini show on a website just a few hours earlier.
“I texted everyone I know in Boston, slicked back my hair and threw on my floral tie before running down here!” Corrigan said.
Corrigan has been a self-described devotee since seeing Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform on David Letterman.
“I probably listen to maybe one album a day — maybe only five times a week — and I’m not even a bluegrass fan. It’s just really addictive music for me,” Corrigan explained.
But then he added a gripe.
“I hate that they say it’s Steve Martin, because there’s like a large group of men who have devoted their lives to music that are standing next to him.”
Martin has gotten used to reactions like this, even though he started playing the banjo when he was 16 and has been a diligent student of the instrument since. And yes, he’s woven music into stand-up shows for years, but admits that since teaming up with the Steep Canyon Rangers he’s worked hard to create some sense of separation between the two parts of himself.
“When I first started doing this we just billed the show as a bluegrass show, because I didn’t want to say ‘bluegrass and comedy’ because I didn’t want people to come thinking it was the old act," Martin said. "But now we know the audience understands that it’s a music and comedy show — but the music is quite serious and the comedy is not.”
“The comedy fans don’t go home disappointed, and many people are turned on to bluegrass for the first time," according to Steep Canyon Ranger Nicky Sanders. He studied violin right here in Boston at Berklee College of Music.
“I moved to North Carolina directly from my apartment in Somerville, Mass., then went straight to Asheville to join this band in 2004, and I’ve been a Steep Canyon Ranger ever since.”
But Sanders admits even he and the rest of the Rangers were a bit wary when Martin joined the group.
“I think at first we were worried that our hardcore bluegrass base would jump ship, but they have just stood by every minute of this path,” he said. “You hear the record that we made with Steve called 'Rare Bird Alert' and you can hear that it is both a Steep Canyon Rangers CD and a Steve Martin CD."
Martin tours with the band only about 30 percent of the year and Sanders loves those shows.
“People are rolling in the aisles,” he said. Now all of the musicians in the band are looking forward to their comedy and bluegrass debut with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, one of the world’s most pristine acoustic spaces.
“You know I’d never been in there, it’s beautiful,” Martin said. “We’re thrilled to be there.”
Martin actually seems almost humbled by the opportunity.
“To have your tunes orchestrated and played essentially by the Boston Symphony is a great honor to me,” he said, then added with a slight smile, “I hope they can keep up.”
Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform “An Evening of Comedy and Bluegrass” with the Boston Pops Tuesday, May 29 through Thursday, May 31 at Symphony Hall.