Steve Poltz has done a number of things throughout his career, but he’s grateful that he doesn’t have the NFL on his resume. He doesn’t have to worry about getting the kind of bad press that has followed Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.
“I’m glad I was never a professional quarterback in the NFL back in the days when I was partying,” he quips early in our phone conversation. “I would have made Manziel look like an altar boy. Honestly, you can’t do anything nowadays. Back in the old days, Joe Namath could go out drinking and have a lot of fun, play a few casinos and the press wasn’t reporting on that. Nowadays, with the 24 hour news cycle and everybody’s got a phone and a video, you can’t do anything.”
In his younger rock ’n’ roll days with the Rugburns, his band at that time, Poltz did a lot of that “anything.”
“We used to go to the Cracker Barrel [when I was with] the Rugburns, and I had this thing and I would see how long I could get away with it. I would go back into the kitchen and act like I was a manager visiting from another Cracker Barrel,” he recalls. “But I’d be dressed like a Rugburn, like in some thrift store clothes and people would be like, ‘Why is this guy back there?’ But I would tell the rest of the band, it’s all in how you carry yourself.”
In the early ’90s, Cleveland was one of the early markets that took an interest in the Rugburns and the San Diego-based group began receiving airplay on WMMS with singles such as “Hitchhiker Joe” and “Me and Eddie Vedder.”
“We were big in Cleveland,” Poltz remembers. “As far as I was concerned, we were rock stars. We [flew out for a show] and they picked us up in a limousine, and we played the Agora Theatre. And then we played Buzzard Fest [in 1995] and we got to open for the Ramones. We [also] had a residency at the Euclid Tavern, and those were like the greatest days of our life. We played with a band called Deaf Children at Play and another band called Medicine Show. Cleveland sort of adopted us. [The band] did really well and our favorite place to play was the Euclid Tavern. It was just a really cool bar and the shows there were insane. So I’ve always had this really soft spot for Cleveland, because they were early adopters.”
He brought singer-songwriter Jewel, his girlfriend at the time, to town.
“I was like, ‘Fly to Cleveland with me!,’” he says. “I brought her out on stage — she was dressed in something nice and she was hot and you know how Cleveland is, everybody was drinking and it’s a Rugburns show — they want to hear ‘Dick’s Automotive,’ and she comes out and I go, ‘This is my girlfriend — her name’s Jewel — she’s going to be big one day.’ And people are just going, ‘Show us your tits!’ She’s laughing and I was like, ‘You watch — I promise you, she’s going to be big.’ And [the Agora] was one of the first places she played.”
Poltz found songwriting success when he co-wrote “You Were Meant For Me” with Jewel, which became a big hit for the young songstress, eventually rising to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April of 1997, but his interest in writing introspective material in addition to the comedic songs he was writing went further back than that. Long before the Rugburns had ever played their first tour date outside of San Diego, he had seen folk singer Loudon Wainwright III play at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, and it was an experience that moved him.
“Loudon was able to hold an audience all on his own and tell stories and take this journey and he was able to fingerpick on the guitar and you could hear it,” Poltz explains. “He wasn’t just thrashing about — which I love doing too with the Rugburns — I don’t mean any disrespect to that, because I still love that. But it was like a lot of that with the Rugburns, I couldn’t even hear my acoustic guitar — there was electric guitar over it and I’d be breaking strings, running around and it was frenetic. I still love it to this day. What I saw in Loudon was that he was able to do it all on his own.”
He says that as much as he loved being in the Rugburns, being in a band can “kind of be a drag too,” because you have three other people besides yourself that you need to worry about.
“You become like brothers and there can be horrible times too where you’re just all hating each other and you’re like, ‘God, I’m like a slave to this,’” he says. “When I saw Loudon, I went, ‘Man, he just travels alone.’ He’s just this troubadour playing these small clubs and that’s all I really wanted. I didn’t have visions of grandeur. To me, to be able to play McCabe’s and be in my fifties would be awesome and to be able to play all of the [venues like that] in the U.S., Australia and Canada would even be better and that’s kind of what I am doing [these days] and playing all of these folk festivals.”
Appropriately, Poltz comes to town in support of his new album, Folk Singer
, a collection of songs that he’s really enthusiastic about.
“It’s the first record I’ve made in San Diego in years,” he says. “I picked this guy named Jeff Berkley, who really did a good job and he’s seen me play over the years. He’s in a band called Berkley Heart and he’s made literally hundreds of records in San Diego and he’s got a really sensitive ear. He was just like, ‘Let’s make a real acoustic-y, folk-y record.’”
Poltz has paired up with fellow ‘90s troubadour Grant-Lee Phillips for this current run of tour dates. The duo shares the stage to collaborate on each other’s songs while also playing individual sets. According to Poltz, fans can expect two and a half hours of “good music” from the pair without a single bit of downtime. He’s having a great time on the road with Phillips — something which you can quickly pick up on if you check out his Instagram and Facebook where he’s been chronicling the shared journey.
“It was like being set up on a blind date the first night. I didn’t really know what it would be like and we instantly got along,” Poltz says, adding that he’s always been a big Grant Lee Buffalo fan. “We just rent a car together and just do all of the driving together and everything, so it’s really fun. Because he’s really smart and he has a lot of stories, so there’s never a lot of dead air on the drives. He’s just a cool guy to hang with. We’re like the yin and yang of each other — I’m a lot more hyperactive. He’s a little more reserved, but it works.”
Steve Poltz & Grant Lee Phillips, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main St., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, musicboxcle.com.