Recording information: Echo Mountain, Asheville, NC; KLRU-TV; MonkMusic Studio, East Hampton, NY; State Theatre Center For The Arts, Easton, PA; Village Recorders, Los Angeles, CA.
Photographers: Mark Seliger; Michael Traister; Max Vadukal; Sandee Oliver.
After releasing The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo in 2009, Steve Martin went on the road with the Steep Canyon Rangers, an established bluegrass group that served as his backup band. Rare Bird Alert finds Martin working with the group again, this time in a more collaborative arrangement. Martin writes all of the songs and retains top billing -- this is Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, not the other way around -- but his banjo skills are just one piece of the pie, with Ranger vocalist Woody Platt doing just as much (or, on some songs, more) legwork as the group's de facto frontman. Together, Platt and Martin steer their lineup through a mix of kinetic bluegrass, folk, and a cappella gospel, with Paul McCartney making a guest appearance on "Best Love" and the Dixie Chicks coming out of semi studio-retirement to harmonize their way through "You." Martin writes well for other singers, only making the occasion vocal appearance himself -- that's him screeching the high notes in "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," one of several songs whose lyrics draw from his comedy career -- and he continues to play the banjo with dexterity, even though it's hard to distinguish between him and the Rangers' own banjoist, Graham Sharp. But that simply enhances the full-band feel of the album, and Rare Bird Alert winds up being even more enjoyable than The Crow, with the shock of Steve Martin's musical abilities giving way to the simple charm of his collaboration with a homespun, confident group of bluegrass pickers. ~ Andrew Leahey