“Clawhammer sounds like a Kama Sutra position” – Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers with Edie Brickell live in St. Augustine, FL
Once upon a time, I bought an Edie Brickell album from a used record store at a flea market in Orlando. The disc, A Picture Perfect Morning, had come out a few years earlier, on the heels of her two big pop hit albums Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and Ghost of a Dog, back when grunge and riot grrrls were happening on one end of the spectrum and Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul were happening on the other.
Edie Brickell was a puzzle to me. Cowboy booted and Texan, flowery skirts and tight jeans. She wasn’t a country singer, exactly. I didn’t really understand what she was. (I was a teenager. I didn’t understand much.)
Now, of course, I can look back and count her and Tom Petty and a few assorted singer-songwriters from that era among the first Americana artists I happened upon. Chances are she just thought she was writing smart, fun, emotional songs that, on a lark, made it onto the radio. The rest of us got a breath of fresh air in a time when so many people were trying so hard – to be fun, to be danceable, to be riddled with angst and ire.
Picture Perfect Morning slayed me in a way the other two albums had only come close. It’s funny now that the summer I found Picture Perfect Morning – two or three years after it released, when I had long since forgotten there had been an Edie Brickell – came the same year I watched The Jerk at least five times. If you had told me these two people would one day get together and make an album (backed by one of the finest bluegrass bands on the circuit), I would have spit out my tofu sprouts tahini wrap. (I was a vegetarian back then.)
But, that’s just one example of the power and import of context.
Another would be this: Sitting smack-dab in the middle of Florida’s St. Augustine Amphitheater on a pretty much perfect late spring evening, watching the sky turn pink beyond the stage as Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, backed by one of the finest bluegrass bands on the circuit indeed, play their way through a remarkable set of well-considered songs.
It’s impossible to resist the temptation to hold this up against their individual bodies of work, which stretch out behind them like two strange and divergent trains. Brickell brings a history with the New Bohemians, smart and labyrinthine lyricism, the dazzling talent of her husband Paul Simon touching here and there behind a production credit, the small handful of radio-friendly pop tunes and the folksy everywoman appeal.
Martin, meanwhile, seems to have come full-circle, at least somewhat. He started out on the stand-up comic circuit with a banjo in his hands and an arrow through his head, working them for easy guffaws even as, if you zoomed in close, you could tell he was sort of a master at both. Then came Saturday Night Live and the remarkable film career (The Jerk and LA Story are my favorites) where he has made a habit of playing the kinds of guys who spend most of their lives feeling lost and confused and desperate in various ways, before finding a strength they didn’t know they had, whether that’s watching their daughter get married, or walking away from going-nowhere love with nothing but a paddle ball game…and this chair…and a thermos.
Try as I might, I can’t wrest my impression of these songs away from my knowledge of their previous careers. Yet, there’s the easy onstage chemistry between these two otherwise seemingly disparate entertainers, the melodies and harmonies and incredible instrumental lines. Certainly the music alone, if made by newcomers, would be impressive. The jokes would be charming. The banter unique. Right?
I listened to the recording – Love Will Come for You – in preparation for the show, and found much of it underwhelming. Perhaps that was the production, or simply the stuff that’s lost when great live performers try to conjure magic within the walls of a staid and stodgy studio. Or maybe I was just being a jaded critic, searching for some remarkable riff, some otherworldly imagination, some impressive oddity that would set it apart from every other CD on my review stack, forgetting sometimes the best music is a moment and nothing more.
Onstage, the songs had room to breathe, to unfold. Seeing the music in context, made by people at the top of their craft, was like hearing the songs anew. The stories helped, about what was going through their minds when the songs were written. Apparently Martin sent her banjo instrumentals, sat back, and waited to hear what Brickell would create when her richly nuanced narrative lyrics met his bouncy, unexpected five-string melodies. Here, she turned a dark and playful melody into a drinking song; there, she transformed a sweet dancey tune into one about suicide. The stories made clear this was a testament to how the meeting of minds can change a landscape. What he thought might be a love song, became a story of family ties and gossip in the hands of his collaborator. That both Martin and Brickell made a point of being so open about their creative process onstage, brought a new intimacy and sweetness to the songs.
Not to mention the Steep Canyon Rangers, whose “solo” two-fer (with both Martin and Brickell off stage) drew the most spirited response of the whole night. They spent much of the show in the background, rooting the music to its tradition, holding the songs together with their impeccable harmonies and intuitive instrumentation.
By the time the set hit its apex with “Auden’s Train” (stolen away by one of the most engaging and stunning fiddle solos I reckon I’ve ever witnessed, courtesy of the Rangers’ Nicky Sanders), I forgot I was trying to figure out if the show was good because these people had a famous past. Everybody has a past, of course. Everybody comes from a remarkable body of work – work which informs the work they’re doing now. Whether that’s a waiter writing songs about his customers or a film actor and pop star inspired by poetry, a circle of aunts, folklore about a girl named Sarah Jane.
Whatever Steve Martin once did, in whatever context his name became known, however Edie Brickell once wandered across America’s MTV, it’s all fed these songs, these shows which can keep a sizable audience completely entertained for three straight hours. It’s this sort of thing that wrests a jaded, judgmental critic from her analytic mind. A reminder that music isn’t easy to make in the first place, especially when it’s a group effort.
Making it listenable is another mountain to climb, and entertainment is altogether its own journey.