WILKES-BARRE ?Comedian, actor, author, moviemaker and Grammy award-winning musician Steve Martin lost his wallet Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre ?of all places ?while bicycling downtown.
The silver-haired Martin, who will turn 68 next month, didn’t think it was funny, but he couldn’t resist making light of his misfortune with that dry wit he delivers in that brilliantly smug way of his.
Martin informed a crowd at the F.M. Kirby Center the wallet story got heavy breaking-news play on local TV news stations in the hour or so leading up to him taking the stage with his banjo and his sharp-dressed supporting bluegrass quintet, the Steep Canyon Rangers.
“That is a slow news day,” joked Martin, styling himself in a white blazer and tie. “I don’t even have a joke for it. So, thank you, Wilkes-Barre (for the record, he pronounced it “Barry”).
“My impression of Wilkes-Barre is everybody is 100 percent honest. All the time!”
“It’s been a longtime dream of mine to play bluegrass music in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.”
“Tonight, I feel like I’m one step closer to that dream.”
The bad news-good news anecdote — a man found the wallet — turned it into the Kirby and got to meet Martin, who reportedly slipped him a $100 reward ?was a prelude to Martin’s engaging 2-hour, 22-song bipolar performance with the Rangers and folksy singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, who made a name for herself as frontwoman of the late ’80s pop act, the New Bohemians.
While on the one hand dropping one-liners after just about every song, Martin appeared as deep in concentration while picking at his banjo as a precise brain surgeon, closely observing the musicians surrounding him and following their lead through a set of melancholy and inspiration.
During the Kirby show, Martin rotated the instrument he played from a collection of four banjos propped up on stage.
He said he considers those four banjos his children, “which means one of them probably is not mine.”
It’s no secret Martin knows how to play. He’s been strumming banjo for half a century, incorporating it into a standup comedy act that he abandoned decades ago.
Nearly half the show at the Kirby was devoted to songs from Martin and Brickell’s new album, “Love Has Come for You.”
Martin wrote the music for the album, Brickell, 47, the lyrics. They collaborated mostly through an exchange of e-mails and phone calls.
Thankfully, Brickell provided vocals for most every song.
Martin added his less-than-standout singing to a couple tunes, including the chorus to “Atheists Have No Songs,” a number he performed with four members of the Rangers: “Catholics dress up for Mass/ And listen to Gregorian chants/ Atheists just take a pass/ Watch football in their underpants.”
And Martin was gracious enough to briefly surrender the spotlight to Brickell.
She explained in her charming Texas drawl where she drew inspiration for the words for the title track of the album: Family reunions while growing up in Texas.
Martin and Brickell met at a dinner party in 1992, the same year she became Mrs. Paul Simon, the obvious connection being Martin and Simon’s frequent guest spots on “Saturday Night Live.” SNL is where Brickell and Simon first met in 1988, the height of Brickell’s pop stardom.
Martin, meanwhile, discovered the North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers ? Grammy winners themselves ? at a party in that state, where Martin’s wife likes to vacation. And they’ve been touring together ever since ? for about four years ? appearing at smaller venues like the Kirby and music festivals, like Telluride Bluegrass in Colorado.
As Martin and his wife were preparing to attend a party in North Carolina, she told him a bluegrass band would be playing there.
“Ahh, a local band . . . how amusing,” Martin smugly joked.
That’s how Martin really met the Ramblers.
“But that doesn’t go down the same way in Hollywood,” Martin suggested. “So, I tell (the media) we met in rehab.”
In addition to their skilled musicianship, the Ramblers gracefully play the well-dressed choir boy straight men to Martin during this 30-date tour.
After Martin completed a banjo solo, Ramblers mandolin player Mike Guggino stepped to a microphone and offered up some praise.
“You’re pretty good,” Guggino told Martin.
Martin then playfully swiveled an on-stage teleprompter toward Guggino.
“I mean . . . You really rival the great Earl Scruggs,” Guggino told Martin, referring to the player whom Martin counts as a main influence on his early banjo playing. “You really tore it up.”
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