Poltz and Phillips Stay Forever Young in Berkeley
A sound recipe for indie musician survival is to share a tour bill and road miles, and cross-pollinate each other’s audiences while you’re at it. Such must have been the thinking that brought together veteran musicians Steve Poltz and Grant Lee Phillips on their inaugural West Coast tour together. The two very accomplished artists, each with a long history of bands, hit songs, and road stories — and wildly divergent stage presences — arrived at The Freight & Salvage with a few guitars, and questions marks, in tow. How would this go? One had to wonder. Poltz and Phillips had only recently met and would be sharing one long set.
Grant-Lee is the same Grant-Lee behind the successful LA Indie Rock band, Grant Lee Buffalo, now pursuing a solo career based on his literate, ruminative songs. Poltz, the Canada-born, San Diego-based troubadour most popularly known for co-writing a huge hit for Jewell back in the late 1990s, was also the wild card in this deck. Not content simply to bring great guitarmanship and songwriting to the stage, Poltz live is a unique and unpredictable animal, equal parts performance artist, stand-up comedian and improvisational monologuist as much as musician. Think Spalding Grey crossed with Willie Nelson crossed with Peter Pan and you get a sense of what you’re in for.
So it was a good call to have Phillips open the show. Affably wearing his “Wednesday denim,” and greeting his mom who was in the audience, he played the poet rather than provocateur for the evening, performing a batch of solo material interspersed with new songs and Grant Lee Buffalo favorites. Phillips’ songs are reflective, about ancestry, night birds, the California drought and what it all may or may not mean. He shone brightest on his more rhythmic material, as well as recent efforts, such as “Walk In the Grass,” which seemed tailor-made for listening to on a long car ride.
After an hour, Poltz loped on stage, impish grin in place, explaining their musical pairing via ‘Match.com, err, shared manager’ and digging into the John Hartford classic “Gentle On My Mind.” The pairing of Poltz and Phillips made a hell of a lot of sense when the two started playing together. The audience gasped in appreciation upon hearing their guitar interplay and harmonizing, before Phillips exited stage left. There was room, and appetite for more of this.
Nonetheless, with his commanding guitar, loop station, general loopiness, and complete openness, Poltz’s enthusiasm can’t help but be contagious. Where Phillips painted with watercolors, Poltz drew with big, bright crayons, albeit with as much heartfelt care. Poltz wants all his friends to be happy, to fuck cancer and check their head. He skips and dances as he sings and plays. After playing “Words” and a song he called “Lake Wishagon,” Poltz launched into a hilarious and riveting story about his recent life-threatening, on-stage stroke. His telling, left his audience agog, not only at his unbelievable will to live and play and love the world…but at the fact that he’d made us forget he hadn’t picked up his guitar in some minutes.
By the time Phillips came back onstage, the audience was in the palm of Poltz’s hand. Phillips gamely caught the infectious and zany vibe now filling the Freight. He, too, rolled on his back while playing lead as they closed out the show together with Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Extending the song, they unplugged their guitars and ran out into the audience, leading the crowd in a sing-along before bounding back on stage and calling it a still-young night.