Someone once wrote of the German poet Heinrich Heine that he delighted in blowing big sentimental soap bubbles and then deliberately pricking them. That’s a good description of the songs of Steve Poltz, the Friday-night MC at the 2015 Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Poltz, whose boyish quality has survived his advance into his mid-fifties and a couple of small strokes, combines songs and wry storytelling in his act, and he was an ideal MC in that notoriously tough slot where people are usually whispering to one another about the act that just performed.
In the mid-1990s Poltz and Jewel, at the time both unknown coffeehouse singers in San Diego, became romantically involved and co-wrote a sweet love song called “You Were Meant for Me.” The story of the song’s origin involved a trip to Mexico, Jewel toting an AK-47 after the pair went with Mexican police on a drug raid at sea under the pretext that they were being invited to go whale watching, and marijuana spaghetti sauce being served to a cadre of Mormon youth. You can find the story online in three parts by searching for “Steve Poltz” and the song’s title on YouTube–this is worth eighteen minutes of your time and is a fine example of Poltz’s storytelling skills. Jewel recorded it on her first album, Poltz directed the video, and the single hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
They continue to perform together from time to time, but the two eventually went their separate ways, and Poltz developed his own considerably more idiosyncratic and intriguing solo career. He rejected input from the large Mercury label because of its artistic interference and formed his own firm, 98 Pounder, in the late 1990s when that wasn’t such a common thing. He’s written hundreds of consistently strong songs, mining his life for absurdities and turning them into pieces that tread the border between story and song in an unusual way.
So every Poltz show may be a little different. The Folk Festival interludes were fine, but it’s worth hearing him when he has the evening to himself and can give free rein to his imagination. He may play around with electronic instruments or turn serious and comment on current events. A staple of his concerts these days is a song called “I Want All My Friends to Be Happy,” which moves masterfully between whimsy and the serious stuff of life:
I want all my friends to be healthy
And when they see kale and greens not just to scoff.
I want them to live long and prosper,
And to tell cancer just to go fuck off.
Steve Poltz comes to the Ark Friday, April 17.