A last minute show brought about by the influence of the Queensland floods, American songsmith Steve Poltz remained in Sydney for a special one off show in Sydney’s Inner West as Sonja Van Hummel writes.
Just before departing Sydney for Perth on his Australia Summer 2011 tour, songwriter and storyteller Steve Poltz indulged an excited crowd of old and new fans to a marathon solo show at The Camelot Lounge (formerly QIRKZ) in Marrickville. Born in Canada but a Southern Californian at heart (and in residential address), Poltz, described on his website as an “unhinged genius” certainly delivered an entertaining and intimate acoustic set that felt more like an autobiography than a gig, and lasted about 2 hours longer than even Poltz himself anticipated.
He opened the evening with the dissonant and dreamy Digging for Icicles, from his new album Dreamhouse, followed by the childlike Spider and the Bumble Bee – a poem by his father – in spoken word with a sprinkling of fingerpicked guitar.
This is a style of playing he clearly favours, and it’s no wonder why, with a sweetly nostalgic, bluesy feel that sits just right with his storyteller’s demeanor and warm, grainy voice. Poltz seems to have an affiliation with his entire audience from the first song in his set. He would be no more at home chatting with you over a coffee (in fact, we were all invited to have breakfast with him at his favourite café in Glebe the next morning) than talking on stage about some of his most intimate or embarrassing moments.
Tonight, he premiered a coming of age tune; Woah, That Must Be Cum!, which surprised even his sound guy, who censored the song title to First Time on the flash drive copy I bought of the evening’s recordings. The audience was in stitches before he had us all singing “woah, that must be cum” right there with him in the chorus, ending the tune with the line “The first time I ever had sex, I was all alone”. He then speculated confidently that this was his new hit and would be played on Triple J hourly, until all the taxi drivers were singing it. The “unhinged genius” is suddenly becoming more and more apparent…
Poltz, out on his tenth visit to Australia, seems to have formed a sound understanding of its people and humour over this time, as well as its geography and state rivalry. After Dreams #23, a haunting track showcasing his higher voice and vibrato, I had the unexpected honour of falling victim to his inpromptu ditties about people in the crowd, and all he needed was my name before delivering the sweet Sonja With a J to an amused (and definitely jealous) audience. Taking lyrical inspiration from whatever he could see and think of, including the pixel size of his website banner, he cheekily crooned that we were a beautiful audience and he loved being here in Melbourne and that “ I hate f***in Sydney yes I do” ‘cause “New South Wales sucks!” Touché, Steve. One gets the feeling that these improvised numbers, always with skilful guitar accompaniment, pop up so regularly that there are literally hundreds of unknown but delightful Steve Poltz tracks scattered worldwide, like Easter eggs, waiting to be discovered. Among some of the most hilarious or theatrical are those he wrote as part of a songwriting group, in which he and his friends challenged each other to write a song that had to have a certain phrase in it, inspiring the lengthy horror ballad Sewing Machine and quirky anti love song Cold German. One of the more energetic tracks was a driving country rock song called Spirit Hands, for which he switched to a steely, four-string tenor guitar.
For someone with the energy of a hyperactive nine year-old when telling his long-winded stories laden with tangents, Poltz sure can turn it around and exercise some powerful poise. In his more candid moments, he conveys a raw honesty that is much more brutal for his delivery. He is passive and so dry, in a way that is not so much disaffected as it is non pity-seeking. Poltz is clearly not afraid of bearing his soul, his weaknesses, his mistakes, his addictions and he will even name ex girlfriends. He brought out one song dedicated to his mother; a classical tune for guitar that he used to think depressed her, so he learnt the monologue of Hyman Roth from the Godfather II, and would recite that on top of it to make her laugh. The faces that accompanied this rendition were brilliant.
In one of his most touching songs, Salt Suit, he describes his pain after his best friend was murdered, how he cried all night onto his black suit until it was dry and all caked in salt, and he eventually ended up in rehab, where they “taught [him] how to not feel anymore”. Yet even amongst such devastation, he manages to draw out some beauty and humour from the situation and put it into his music.
As the night came to a close (well past 1:00am, four hours after he opened his set) and the audience had more tears to wipe away and painful stomachs from the excessive laughter, Poltz seemed as fresh and energized as ever. A reformed addict, he swears he doesn’t get the energy from snorting lines, but sucks it up from the audience, as a tarot reading advised him to do once. You can’t do this without a high level of interaction, and Poltz certainly has this covered. After the show, he chatted happily and took photos with everyone, even approaching them first, with no air of rock-star ego. In fact, I chatted to him long enough to change his homepage on his iPhone to my band’s myspace, (the shame!) and play him some Simon & Garfunkel on the piano at Camelot Lounge. He told my mum I was awesome. Now she finally knows!
Everyone left that night feeling like they’d made a new friend. He is certainly a rare artist to be treasured: a storyteller, a musician, a gentle soul, wild child, hooligan and unhinged genius all rolled into one.