A revered modern-day folk hero, the Nova Scotia-born and current Nashville, TN resident Steve Poltz has been performing on the underground scene since the 1990s, and remains one of the hardest working musicians on the live-music circuit today. With an unrelenting touring schedule, Poltz recently performed shows in Alaska, California, and Idaho, before landing in Gravenhurst, ON for a Friday evening headlining spot at the Muskoka Music Festival.
We first learned of Steve Poltz via his humorous Twitter posts, before having the opportunity to catch a brief set at a Montreal festival several years ago – and quickly found the human version to be as equally quirky and as unpredictable as his online counterpart. Hearing performances of songs such as “Folk Singer” and “Hey God, I’ll Trade You Donald Trump For Leonard Cohen,” we witnessed first-hand his lyrical charm and observational humor. This is an artist, after all, who has pet names for his guitar collection – and for this recent visit to Ontario, Poltz had “Smokey Joe” along for the ride, a vintage Taylor six-string that he once saved from being destroyed (some noticeable damage between the sound hole and bridge).
Performing for just a little over an hour, Steve shared music from his vast back catalog, whilst also weaving in a pair of tracks from his very recent “Stardust And Satellites” album, notably “Lord And Savior,” and “It’s Baseball Season” – a theme that he touches on frequently, given his longtime passion for America’s pastime and the San Diego Padres. “Got a bottle of wine, it tastes like cherry / Our first date it sure is scary / First base,” he sang, earning chuckles with his comical references and mastery of the double entendre. “And it’s a high fly foul ball into the right field seats / Caught by the man from Walla Walla,” he would recite, in full baseball color commentator mode, at the close of the song.
While Poltz errs towards reactionary comedic impact with his own offerings, he is also a bona-fide songwriting collaborator and co-writes with and/or for popular artists. Many are familiar with his brief romantic relationship with Jewel back in the 90s, and the song “You Were Meant For Me,” Jewel’s international hit that they wrote together – which he naturally performed and took time to ad-lib mid-way through the song. “So, we were playing this song at Woodstock ’99, right before all the riots broke out. We were on stage, and there was about 300,000 people in front of us going nuts, throwing stuff in the air, setting Porta Potty’s on fire, it was pretty crazy,” he stated. “And I’m in this documentary for about five seconds. It’s on Netflix, and I’m throwing a pair of Converse All-Star tennis shoes backstage and I go, ‘You guys are cool for hooking us up.’ That’s my whole line. I watched it again with subtitles. I catch the shoes, I’ve got a cowboy hat on and some dark glasses, and I go, ‘Thanks man, you guys are cool for hooking us up.’ I’m so proud of that.”
On this particular evening in Gravenhurst, Steve also tossed in some of his more recent tunes, written with contemporary bluegrass artists Billy Strings (“Leaders”) and Molly Tuttle (“Over The Line”). He would also provide commentary about his earlier musical days, and forming a San Diego-based rock band called The Rugburns – adding “Kilkenny Man,” one of their compositions about helping out a casual buddy in Ireland during his hitchhiking days. An unexpected cover of “She Moved Through The Fair” was also shared, itself a traditional tune of Irish descent.
“I used to be in this band called The Rugburns, and we were from San Diego, that’s where I lived back then, I live in Nashville now,” he would announce. “I lived in San Diego for like 30 years, and we had this old van, and I went to a hardware store and bought letters. Just like these letters on Smokey Joe here, on the side of the van I put St. Joseph’s Catholic School on both sides and on the back, because nobody’s ever gonna rip off a church van.” Laughter naturally broke out, Steve pausing to feed off the energy before continuing his tale. “Like, if you’re a thief and you see a van, and you see a van owned by a band, you’re gonna think ‘expensive instruments, vintage stuff you can steal’,” he added. “So, if you have stickers like all over the van, you look like a band. But ours had blacked-out windows and said St. Joseph’s Catholic School, and on the license plate frame it said Happiness is being a Grandparent. Nobody ever broke into the van. It’s a good tip, if you can use it. It really works.”
Taking time to retune Smokey Joe, Steve was happy to tell a tale about his recent week-long river boat cruise on the Salmon River in Idaho. “I just changed these [strings] on the river that I played every night for a bunch of 24 people, that set up a light above me in the middle of the river and it was solar powered. And little did I know it would attract bugs above me, and I’d get fifty bites on my arms and legs, and this is the first day they are really not itching that bad,” he narrated. “Monday, I just wanted to jump out of a window to end the itching, but it’s mellowed out with the help of cortisone. Oh cortisone, oh cortisone / How I loved you this week / I never had to use you before this week / But now you are my best friend. That’s my new hit song.”
Closing the show with his recent personal (and hilarious) single, “Quarantine Blues” (along with an encore performance of the crowd favorite, “Folk Singer”), Steve prepared his audience about the impetus of this tune. “I made a list of everything I did in the last couple of years during lockdown. It’s like my own personal journal, and you get to hear it,” he explained. “Everything I did, everything, and I wrote it all down, and I didn’t forget one thing, so here goes.” Throwing out lines that rhymed skyscraper with toilet paper, and Miley Cyrus with Coronavirus, indeed earned chuckles, but there were some lines in succession that had the audience in hysterics and brought the first day of the festival to a jovial close. “I was sittin’ on the toilet / Tryin’ to get some unemployment / And stayed in the bathroom / For a meeting on Zoom / Forgot I wasn’t wearing pants / I did a little dance / I was jiggling down below / And everybody got a free show.”
- You Remind Me Who I Am
- It’s Baseball Season
- The Great Mystery
- Silver Lining
- Little Martha (Allman Bros. cover)
- Lord And Savior
- She Moved Through The Fair (Trad.)
- *Untitled New Song*
- Over The Line
- You Were Meant For Me
- Kilkenny Man (The Rugburns)
- Quarantine Blues
- Folk Singer
Photo Credit: Martin Noakes