Steve Martin came to Carolina with a banjo on his knee, and it turned out to be the perfect way to open Charlotte's new cultural campus on the 400 block of South Tryon Street. A full house at Knight Theater, studded with VIPs and at least one mayoral candidate, greeted the actor-comedian-playwright-director-essayist-banjo picker enthusiastically last Saturday night as Martin sat down with humorist Dave Barry -- and his banjo -- for a mock interview.
If you loved the Martin/Barry segment -- peppered with a non-question from the audience, Barry's wisecracks, and Martin's zany zigzag between self-effacement and hyperbolic conceit -- the rest of the evening would be a breeze. There was plenty of that same sharp seasoning when Barry gave way to the Steep Canyon Rangers, a mighty quintet of bluegrass pickers who, musically speaking, are Martin's Carolina connection.
Between no-nonsense helpings of bluegrass, Martin interlarded more humor, including a shtick with Steep Canyon banjoist Graham Sharp, jabs at bluegrass that were nearly as funny as Barry's, and a kinky faux title for the title song of his No. 1 hit album, The Crow. A consummate showman, Martin didn't plunge into the rut of reciting the names of his compositions until the fourth song he played, yet his descriptions during the Barry interview and afterwards were sufficient to track down "Clawhammer Medley," "Freddie's Lilt" and "Words Unspoken" if you were interested.
To bridge the segment where the Rangers had the stage to themselves for three songs, Martin's showmanship was even more resourceful: He built a running sight gag from the notion that Steep Canyon bassist Charles Humphrey was a special asset on the road because his instrument doubles as a refrigerator. Framing those songs were the two comical songs off Martin's album, the wild and crazy "Late for School" and "Jubilation."
And let's make no mistake: Martin's playing and composing skills soar high above the dilettante level. Aside from "The Crow" during his first set of tunes, I was particularly impressed by "Tin Roof" and "Calico Train" when he returned from his banana break. It was during the latter tune, I think, that Martin found the perfect moment to reassure his fans that they would not leave the theater without hearing his monster single, "King Tut," country style. It came as the second encore after a roaring performance of "Orange Blossom Special," with a dazzling exhibition of double-bowing by fiddler Nicky Sanders evoking the famed train's whistle. Lead vocalist Woody Platt occasionally played some tasty guitar licks, but more of the instrumental spotlight fell on mandolinist Mike Guggino, who also emerged as a damn good backup vocalist.
You had to hate bluegrass with a passion and be tone-deaf to Martin's humor in order to have a bad night at the Knight. The sound system passed its first test with flying colors, and if the seats were a little stiffer than people might have expected, I was able to sit through the intermission-free 105 minute affair without the slightest twinge of butt-burnout. Seat room is adequate, the slope of the orchestra offers better sightlines than the Belk, and the one blackout we had was pitch dark, putting the Belk and the Booth to shame.
Pre-recorded music was playing as Sue and I left the hall, the second movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, and the clarity of the reproduction was striking. NC Dance Theatre will benefit hugely from that upgrade as they transition from the Belk to the Knight.
Conductor Chelsea Tipton II and guitarist Jason Vieaux were the guest artists last week with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, and Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto inevitably headlined the program. We haven't heard the full Concierto de Aranjuez at the Belk since 1998, although Sharon Isbin favored us with the concerto's choice cut, the haunting adagio reduced to encore size, just four years ago with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra.
The familiar melody, emblematic of Andalusian royalty and Chrysler's better days, puts the orchestra under as much pressure as the soloist. Violins need to enter sharply and swell passionately at the climax, and three reed principals needed to glow with simple eloquence along the way -- Joshua Hood on bassoon, Hollis Ulaky on oboe, and especially Terry Maskin on English horn. Done!
Tipton and Vieaux cooked up a delicious segment after the break. The conductor briefly shed his tux top in favor of a sport jacket and sat centerstage with Vieaux, who brought back his ax for a small set of solo pieces. "Sevilla," originally written by Isaac Albéniz for piano in 1886, has been core 20th century guitar repertoire since the days of Segovia. But to Tipton and Vieaux's credit, they also offered selections off the beaten path, Jorge Morel's "Danza Brasilera" and Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Vieaux stretched the Duke in two directions, adding bluesier chords to the melody and some spacey chromaticism to the bridge.
With Gershwin and Bernstein also on the program, the CSO went 20th Century all evening long, often projecting a bold big-band sound. Three saxophone freelancers got the first bows after Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (arranged into "A Symphonic Picture" by Robert Russell Bennett), but this was definitely banjo weekend in the Center City as Jimmy Duckworth got to strum and pick on "I've Got Plenty o' Nuttin'."
There's more goofball country magic in the Davidson Community Players' production of Almost, Maine than any comedy to hit the Metrolina region since Catfish Moon. In an interconnected suite of eight short plays -- inside a syrupy boy-girl prologue and epilogue -- playwright John Cariani achieves a feat that may be unparalleled. Unlike David Ives's All in the Timing, for example, none of the plays seems like a TV comedy sketch. And the cast -- all playing multiple roles except the boy and girl -- is excellent.
The problem is snagging a seat at Armour Theatre, where sell-outs are routine and the best views are toward the front. Buy now and arrive early. You may also need to knock down an elderly person to get a prime view, but you'll be glad you did.