The Steep Canyon Rangers: Just About the Best Thing Happening in Americana Right Now
The Steep Canyon Rangers – bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and drummer Michael Ashworth – might be best known as Steve Martin’s bluegrass backing band. But they also write great songs. They’re on tour for their latest album, Tell the Ones I Love, at City Winery on Nov 4 at 8 PM; $20 standing room tix are your best deal. Newgrass nd original acoustic Americana doesn’t get any better than this.
The title track opens the album and sets the stage for most of the rest of it; the way they work an oldtime vernacular, respectful of tradition but not constrained by it, is the key to what this band does. This one is a brisk banjo-driven tune with a doomed, death-obsessed lyric, sort of an update on the classic folk song The Old 97. Stand & Deliver builds a surreal, apocalyptic scenario over a soaring, anthemic tune lit up by bluesy mandolin and a shivery fiddle solo. Bluer Words Were Never Spoken has a literate acoustic alt-country feel in something of a Joe Maynard vein, a sad story-within-a-story. They follow that with the amusingly cynical Come Dance.
Camellia recalls the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty; then the band pulls out their lone instrumental here, the Celtic-tinged Graveyard Fields. Boomtown has the feel of a James McMurtry western ballad, a pensive go-where-the-work-is tale. The band wryly explores a different and more dangerous kind of work in the weed-smuggling anthem Mendocino County Line, then go into darkly guitar-fueled oldtimey swing with Hunger. Lay Myself Down has some killer vocal harmonies and a neat succession of handoffs, from fiddle to banjo to mando; it wouldn’t be out of place in the Dixie Bee-Liners catalog. Take the Wheel goes back toward a rustic oldtime folk feel; the album ends with its best song, the twistedly carnivalesque hi-de-ho noir Las Vegas. “I’m king of this plastic castle but I feel like dying,” says the guy watching the “tight shirts, t-shirts and quick casanovas, honeymooners, middleschoolers, sightseeing high rollers” slowly making their way down the strip. “If you ain’t hustling, you can bet you’re getting hustled.” It’s a good indication of how diverse this band can be when they feel like it. And as anybody who’s ever seen Martin with these guys will tell you, they’re just as good live as they are on this album.