“I’m not folk,” Steve Poltz said when he was hanging out with some members of the audience after his recent show at Jammin’ Java. In his song “Wrong Town,” on his recently released album Stardust and Satellites, he jokes about being “Americana if you wanna.” He also describes Emmylou Harris as his fashion icon, mixed with a little Don Was.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what Steve Poltz does. He’s a guy with an acoustic guitar, and that does often indicate some sort of folksinger. But there’s some definite punk energy to him, too. He is also a total weirdo, more than a little out of his mind. His show, both in and between songs, often veered in filthy and scatological territory, much of it improvised, providing the audience with a one-of-kind experience.
For all the madness and the chaos of a Steve Poltz show — and the April 13 show wasn’t one of the crazier ones — there’s no mistaking that you’re seeing a very smart, very talented guy who writes great songs. You’ve definitely heard some of them. He co-wrote Jewel’s megahit “You Were Meant For Me”; the two, who were then struggling musicians in San Diego, had gone down Baja California in Mexico to surf, and ended up scribbling out lyrics on a bunch of napkins. Somehow, they got caught up in a drug bust, and the napkins all flew into the ocean. Jewel insisted that Steve wade into the water and collect them, which turned out to be a very good call.
When he played another one of their songs, “Silver Line,” Steve recalled how Jewel told him not to “Poltzerize” it. That means, he explained, to create something beautiful, and then to shit all over it.
Watch Steve Poltz perform “You Were Meant for Me” live for Moshcam in 2011 via YouTube:
This show had considerably more discussion of bowel-related activities and substances than any I have ever attended. This summer, Steve is taking part in a river trip where he plays music for the guests each night. He told the audience about the very specific arrangements for relieving oneself when one is on a river raft, and then proceeded to describe his own very specific experiences.
This information, somehow, managed to be entertaining in the context in which it was delivered, but any attempt to relay it to you in this format would inevitably be a less than pleasant reading experience. I will move on.
I’ve mentioned how Steve is a talented songwriter, and people in the know, know. He opened the set with a song he wrote with ace bluegrass guitarist Molly Tuttle, “Over The Top For You.” In the second set, he shared a new song he’d written with Americana stalwart — and absolute prince of a man — Jim Lauderdale, which was inspired by an injury to Steve’s friend Jim Flannery, who played for the San Diego Padres. (Baseball is a frequent subject; “It’s Baseball Season” appears on the new album.) In a bit of twist, Billy Strings wrote the lyrics to “Leaders,” while Steve composed the music.
After “The Solitary Life of the Lonely Giraffe,” which Steve described as “a song I wrote about 1 of my favorite animals,” we got the first serpentine, freestyled, largely stream-of-conscious story of the evening. If I followed what he was saying, he gave up drinking after he smashed his guitar open, then proceeded to drink out of it. I am not entirely clear on the mechanics of this; they confuse me. He has a very dedicated, monogamous relationship with his current guitar, such that he does not, like many other musicians, visit Guitar Centers while on the road, because he doesn’t want to have to answer his guitar’s questions.
I have no idea if this was planned, but “Wrong Turn” was followed by the sharing of his favorite joke from the comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who had just passed away the day before. The joke is, unsurprisingly, quite filthy and dark, and I’ll let you enjoy it in Gilbert’s inimitable voice and style.
Hear Gilbert Gottfried tell “The French Toast Joke” on YouTube:
Although he’s based in Southern California, Steve was born in Halifax, Novia Scotia, and he still has a noticeable accent. What really entertains him, though, are the people of Newfoundland and their accents, on whom he waxed poetic at length.
Following an intermission, we came back for more of the madness, as Steve introduced “The Great Mystery” as a song he wrote for White House Press Secretary Jen Psaski. He wrote that song with Gregory Page of the Rugburns, which led him to tell a how, when he was in that band, he kept their van from being broken into by blacking out the windows and putting stickers on it that said “St. Anthony’s Catholic School.”
The second set featured a couple of covers. He led into John Prine’s “All The Best” with a long story about the time he got to hang out with one of his heroes. He was tasked with taking John from his hotel to the Disney story — but the Disney story was across the street. This led to a bit of wild go-round as Steve drove in a circle. At the store, John realized he was across from the hotel, at which point Steve claimed, “They moved it.” John then asked whether he should walk or get back in the van, to which Steve begged him to get back in the van. John, being the incredible human he was, got in the van, and allowed him to drive across the street. He then set him up for the show, putting him right up.
God bless John Prine. He was one of the good ones, and he is missed. We also got a cover of Jerry Reed’s “Steeplechase.” There was an involved story about runners for bands, Amy Grant’s manager, Marilyn Manson, and finding Christ, that is truly remarkable and too involved for me to do justice.
Folks, you really have to go hear this stuff for yourself. I am but a humble man with a keyboard and a screen, and I cannot do justice to this experience. That experienced all culminated in a joyous singalong to the Grateful Dead classic “Ripple,” with Steve cast in the role of some impish, demented, semi-magical camp counselor. It was great, and I loved every minute of it.
I suppose, if I really think about it, I can see where some people might not dig this. They might “get” it; it might not be for them. I mean, I haven’t even talked about the bizarre, electronic thing that happened, and I’m not even sure quite how to describe that, other than that, like all of the Steve Poltz experience, it is completely wild.