The man with the white sport coat and white hair grimaced with concentration as he plucked his banjo. The woman with the brick-red dress next to him, absent-mindedly twisted her long brown hair around an index finger.
Say “hello” to the modern-day Steve & Edie, who performed Monday at the sold-out State Theatre in Minneapolis. That’s Steve Martin, 67, the comedian/banjo man/movie star, and Edie Brickell, 47, the introspective singer/songwriter.
They knew each other from dinner parties, wrote a batch of songs via e-mail (he lives in Los Angeles, she in New York) and this spring put out an impressive album, “Love Has Come for You.” Now they are touring with Martin’s regular road ensemble, the Steep Canyon Rangers, from North Carolina.
Their 110-minute performance was fitting for the only person who has won Grammys in comedy and bluegrass. It was gosh darn funny, pretty darn musical and unequivocally entertaining.
Martin has improved dramatically since he played with the Rangers in 2010 at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. A more confident banjo player and more relaxed frontman, he acted like he belonged there fronting a bluegrass band. Yes, he relied on his between-song jokes to carry the evening but the music held its part of the bargain this time.
Martin made two crucial changes from last time. First, he had no opening act, unlike in 2010 when the Punch Brothers, a progressive bluegrass ensemble of vastly superior pickers, set too high a standard for Martin and the Rangers to follow. Second, he has incorporated Brickell, who brought not only a different dimension but also depth to his music. Plus, her earnest stories behind the songs were perfect fodder to provoke some comedic comment from Martin.
“Love Has Come for You” may be based on Martin’s banjo melodies but it’s really more of a folk album, or a modern old-timey album, if you will. With her imagination sparked by having spent chunks of her childhood in her grandma’s three-room house on stilts in Paris, Texas, Brickell tells tales about a woman who has a baby with the married man at the bank, a baby who is found in a suitcase on a train (and survives) and an elderly woman who asks a painter to airbrush a portrait of her.
With her gauzy Texas drawl of a voice, Brickell was the right combination of earthy and ethereal, a sublime storyteller between the absurd asides by Martin between numbers. Too bad Brickell was treated like a special guest and onstage less than half the show, doing only eight of the 13 songs from “Love Has Come to Me.”
The rest of the show was a balance of instrumentals by Martin and the Grammy-winning Rangers as well as vocal numbers by the nifty harmonizing Rangers, featuring lead singer Woody Platt (whom Martin accused of choosing his moniker from a bluegrass name generator). Fiddler Nicky Sanders was the standout instrumentalist, who, during the long-chugging “Auden’s Train,” managed to sneak in riffs from “Norwegian Wood” and “The William Tell Overture,” among other famous pieces.
Martin took a crack at lead singer on one new number, a murder ballad entitled “Pretty Little One.” While the oddly playful lyrics fit him, his voice lacked the color to deliver the song with authority. He was more effective as the intentionally off-key lead singer on the a cappella ensemble spiritual, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” a smart and silly sendup that reflects both sides of Martin’s personality.
He didn’t dust off his 1978 novelty hit “King Tut,” which he’d reworked in 2010 as a bluegrass piece, and Brickell did not offer her signature hit, 1989’s “What I Am.”
Throughout the night, though, Martin offered his signature comedy. Yes, it was all scripted. And some of it was apparently read off an iPad, which he seemed to use as a prompter. But almost all of it had the crowd in stitches.
Checking his high-tech banjo tuner, he explained: “It lets me check e-mails. In fact, right now I’m watching ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”
Pointing to his five banjos, he said: “These banjos are like my children, which means one of them is probably not mine.”
“A few weeks ago, I went to see Eric Clapton play. And I thought, ‘He’s not so funny.’ ”
Can I get a rimshot? Oops, bluegrass bands have no drummer.