On the Road With the Rangers

Call it a hootenanny: Steve Martin, his banjo, and the Steep Canyon Rangers hit Guild Hall Saturday night. Sandee Oliver

    “Bad luck and misfortune.” That’s how Matthew Murphy laughingly described the life turns that led to his career in music as a tour manager. “I was a musician myself,” a bass player, he said Saturday from somewhere outside Detroit. “I got injured and was laid up for a while, but stayed in the business.”
    To put it mildly. He handled the biggest bands of the 1970s and ’80s: Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Eurhythmics, Brian Ferry, UB40, Fine Young Cannibals. The list goes on.
    And then one day he found himself standing in the East Room of the White House being greeted by Barack Obama. “He and Michelle were so gracious and nice. We’re standing there and I’m the first one they walk up to: ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Hello, Mr. President.’ ” A few weeks after the fact, Mr. Murphy spoke as if he still couldn’t believe it. “We all left the experience so high, it was so uplifting. They’re such good spirits.”
    About that “we”: He was there with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, who, it so happens, will bring their bluegrass and banjo act to Guild Hall Saturday night, a show that’s already sold out.
    Fans of Mr. Martin’s comedy albums of the ’70s — back when, unheard of for a stand-up comedian, he packed stadiums — will recall his banjo playing onstage. It’s a happy instrument, he would say, before demonstrating its imperviousness to gloom as he intoned “Oh death” and so forth over its chipper pluckings.
    “He’s a world-class banjo player,” said Mr. Murphy, who has worked with him for two years. Here and in other aspects of his performing, “he’s intent on getting it right. He works on his craft constantly.”
    Mr. Martin joined up with the Steep Canyon Rangers, admired bluegrass players in their own right, after meeting them on tour in Asheville, N.C., where they’re from.
    “They take the stage together and there’s music, some conversation, they’ll banter,” Mr. Murphy said. A couple of a cappella numbers are real showstoppers, he added.
    The concert’s a chance for the tour manager to converse as well, catch up with family, keeping as he does a house in Wainscott, with a sister, the watercolorist Michelle Murphy, in Amagansett. (His brother is Elliott Murphy, a singer and songwriter who will be making his yearly trip to the Stephen Talkhouse in December.)
    The respite will be brief; the life of the road calls: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers will perform at a Fourth of July concert in Washington, D.C., “A Capitol Fourth,” which will be broadcast on PBS. Then to England and onward till the end of August, at which time Mr. Martin and Mr. Murphy will, for now, part ways. Which for the tour man means hello, Incubus.


<