A couple months ago, I saw Steve Martin at Disney Hall playing the banjo, right after seeing the famous tap-dancer Savion Glover perform at the Broad Hall. Both events struck me as surprisingly similar.
Each man is probably the most famous person in his art form, and most audience members I’d imagine showed up because of this. Martin is very much a legit banjo player, as his first album of banjo songs, “The Crow,” released earlier this year, spent months atop the bluegrass charts and got nominated for major International Bluegrass Music Association awards (again, probably at least in part from name recognition). Glover is a tap dancer and has always been a tap dancer, but his fame also came from outlets where his tap dancing mixed with more popular art forms, as in his creation of the Broadway show “Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk” and his choreography for the animated movie “Happy Feet.”
Each one’s art form is a small corner of Americana, one that is easily forgotten and isn’t often written about in big feature stories in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section.
Each one had a band of sorts. Martin had the Steep County Rangers as his backup band, and for a few songs he was joined by his opening act Abigail Washburn and for others the famous banjo player Bela Fleck came onstage, and the Rangers also did a couple songs on their own. Glover’s act was also set up very much like a concert — it was him and two backup dancers, and each had his own wooden platform on the stage, and, as with Martin, the backup dancers at times got their own “songs” to perform.
Each one involved the impressively quick repetition of this tiny staccato noise in order to create a catchy rhythm. There’s the click-click of the tap shoes, and the blink-blink of the banjo.
A couple of Martin’s songs had words but most were instrumentals, usually with names like “Tin Roof” or “Blue River Waltz” or “The Crow,” and the banjo playing vaguely evoked that title. Similarly, Glover’s act was split up into “songs” — different sections, each with a different name, each one of which also vaguely evoking the title. After each concert, I couldn’t remember one song from another.
And at each concert, I started to have the same thought about each particular art form — how does this art form change? How is it moved forward? And is one artist different from another? For instance, while watching Martin, I could pick out pleasing and somewhat surprising chord progressions, but in terms of what the banjo was actually playing, it’s not incredibly dissimilar from the stereotypical bum-bum-diddle-liddle-diddle-bum-bum-bum banjo sound like the song in “Deliverance,” which came out 37 years ago.
And Savion Glover might very well be different from other tap-dancers in his physical abilities, which are quite astounding. This is where he and Steve Martin differ — I don’t know squat about such things but I’d imagine Savion may very well be one of the greatest very in his field, not just the most famous. But still, occasionally it felt like he was just like the other tap-dancers I’ve seen, only faster. More fun to watch, for sure, but how exactly is he different as an artist? How is he distinct in the way he interprets the art form? I always hear dancers say “dance allows me to express myself.” What exactly are Glover and Martin expressing? Or does there even need to be an answer to that question? Without an answer, it seems that what they do is closer to an amazing physical feat, like what acrobats or contortionists do, than it is to other art forms like books and films.
Maybe I just don’t know enough about this stuff. Maybe there are a lot of avant-garde things going on in bluegrass that Steve Martin doesn’t know about (potentially), and maybe there are a lot of envelope-pushing tap-dancers out there and Savion Glover isn’t one of them and is basically riding on his “Bring in ‘da Noise” fame (more doubtful).
But for some reason, in other art forms, like when someone sees a movie like, say, “Pulp Fiction,” or, sees standup comedy by, say, Steve Martin, I feel like it’s easier to say “damn that’s much different than anything I’ve seen before.” Or when you see a few paintings by, Andy Warhol, they immediately look very different from a few paintings by Monet. Maybe it’s because we’re just more familiar with these areas. Maybe it’s just easier to express yourself when you’re allowed to use more than just the click click of your feet or the blink blink of your banjo pick.
And what do Martin and Glover think about this? Would they admit, “yes, my art form is a dead end”? Or is progress or change simply not a consideration? Do they simply say, “This is just what I want to do.”
By the way, for his final encore, Steve Martin sang “King Tut,” his famous song from “Saturday Night Live.” The crowd went wild.