Confidence & Comedy

Steve Martin and Sarah Jarosz take it to the Limits

Confidence & Comedy

Before Sarah Jarosz performed at SXSW 2010, I was introduced to her new Nashville manager. I mentioned I’d known Jarosz since she was 13. “You have no idea how many people have told me that," he responded with a chuckle.

It seemed every one of those people was in attendance at her Austin City Limits taping last night. What struck me about this appearance from the 19-year-old singer-songwriter is her confidence. How many performers of any age introduce not one but two new songs on a national TV show?

Accompanied by two equally talented teenagers – 18-year-old Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and 16-year-old Nathaniel Smith on cello – Jarosz concentrated on songs from her acclaimed debut, Song Up In Her Head. Only occasionally did her youth show, like when she exclaimed, “Austin City Limits!” and shook her fist after opening with the stark, beautiful “Tell Me True.” Otherwise, it was all big smiles and impeccable musicianship.

There were moments when their interplay recalled the morose yet exhilarating style of Lyle Lovett, others when Jarosz’s growth as a songwriter brought to mind performers as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, or Gillian Welch. “What can I say, this is a dream come true,” she gushed before leading the audience in a sing-a-long of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House” and earning a standing ovation. Her first ACL appearance, but surely not her last, and now all in attendance can say, “I knew her when…”

After a brief intermission, Steve Martin and North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage. I cheated a little by seeing their performance at the Long Center on Sunday, one of my favorites shows of the year so far. What Martin and band pulled off for ACL was a condensed version of their stage show, with most of the same songs and jokes, but a little different pacing.

The comedian’s goofiness extends to his songwriting at times, but he’s also a superb banjo picker and the backing was nearly flawless. Most of the set came of his Grammy- winning LP, The Crow: the straight-up country of “Daddy Played the Banjo,” dexterous banjo workout “Hoedown At Alice’s,” and fancy newgrass of “Saga of the Old West.” After “I Can’t Sit Down,” a stunning gospel a cappella by the Rangers, Martin joined in for the raucous “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs." The punch line: “Atheists just have the blues.”

They encored with a fierce “Orange Blossom Special,” showcasing the outstanding fiddle work of Nicky Sanders, and a crowd-pleasing bluegrass version of Martin’s one-hit wonder, “King Tut.” One of Martin's quips typified the show: “People ask, ‘Steve, why a music career? Why now?’ And I say, ‘Hey, you guys are my band!’” His musicianship isn’t a joke and his mix of music and comedy is a gift that he’s gratefully chosen to share.

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Steve Martin, Sarah Jarosz, Austin City Limits, Steep Canyon Rangers, The Crow, Orange Blossom Special, King Tut

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