ST. PETERSBURG — Old-timey music aside, there was a resolute vaudeville charm, a retro notion of whizbang show biz, at Steve Martin's endlessly entertaining gig at a soldout Mahaffey Theater on Thursday.
Yes, there was nimble bluegrass and pretty lights and perfect sound and Martin's deft clawhammer banjo picking, a hobby that's given the funnyman a second career. There were solos and duets and blazing showoff moments from Martin's drop-jaw-awesome band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. And in the two-hour-plus show's second half, lilting chanteuse Edie Brickell (remember your crush on her in the '80s? What I Am and all that?) showed up to do puckish cuts from her and Martin's new album, Love Has Come for You.
And through it all, there was comedy from the 67-year-old himself, belly-laugh heaps of it: dry chuckles, goofy snorts, a silly sight gag involving a stand-up bass as a refrigerator. From the second the white-haired icon came out to wild applause, he was locked in and riffing: "Now I wished I'd practiced!"
And more: "It has always been a longtime dream of mine to play bluegrass music in St. Petersburg, Florida. And I feel like I'm one step closer to that tonight."
And then more: "We are going to open the show by playing our first song. And this is a song (dramatic pause and raised eyebrow) we have completely memorized."
And then one more, always displaying that classic Martin blend of absurd and smart, the timing as perfect and crisp as a Rolex: "You're probably wondering why I have so many banjos onstage. It's just a big ego thing. Actually I think of my banjos as children — which means that one of them probably isn't mine."
In between the jokes, Martin and his Rangers excelled in bluegrass and Western swing and folk balladry, working through cuts from their first two intricate albums, 2009's The Crow and 2011's Rare Bird Alert. "I don't think of the Steep Canyon Rangers as my band — I think of me as their celebrity," he deadpanned, then added: "This next song is a sing-along, but it has no lyrics so good luck!"
Some ditties were heartbreaking, especially Martin's solo performance of The Great Remember, a wistful instrumental written for a friend. Others were hilarious, including the robust sorta-gospel harmonizing of Atheists Don't Have No Songs and the wicked breakup slag Jubilation Day, both of which would have fit perfectly in Martin's old '70s standup act.
"I like to write songs based on my life experiences," he said. "So the next song is called I Think My Masseuse Is Too Chatty."
After a short break, Brickell joined the boys for a smiling run-through of the lovesick tunes from the new record, for which her quirky-girl lyrics are matched with Martin's bittersweet banjo melodies. The Rangers gave their playing a slight rock edge (or at least rockabilly), and Martin himself was more sideman too, easing up on the zingers a bit and reveling in the soft, May-December creative partnership with Brickell, who still sounds like a teenager at age 47. The best cuts were Shawnee (about the perils of weird cousins), the front-porch pickin' party of Get Along Stray Dog and the altogether life-affirming Sun's Gonna Shine.
You can tell Martin is relishing this stage of his career. The show had such a loose, organic vibe, it ran well past its intended stop time. But the 2,000-plus in attendance sure didn't mind sticking around. And neither did Martin, who said, "I'm doing my two favorite things: comedy and charging people to hear music."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.