Steve Poltz/Robby Schiller; March 30, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music
Austin’s annual SXSW music conference often serves as the beginning of a tour for many bands. It always seems like the most visible bands during the five day overload of music head out on the road at its conclusion, gradually filtering north. Steve Poltz played what seemed like dozens of shows in Austin this year, and somehow I managed to miss every one of them. Of course, if you weren’t Ha Ha Tonka or Califone, it was likely I was going to miss you. But I also had the comfort of knowing that he was coming to my house in just a matter of days.
When I booked the show many months before, I thought I was booking a solo show. However, a few days prior, his booking agent e-mailed me to let me know that instead of just Steve there would be a three piece backing band and a sound guy/tour manager. Not a problem of course, I’ve had plenty of full bands in the basement, and I was more than a little relieved that he was bringing his own sound guy since this was a Tuesday and my usual sound guy Blake Thomas had his own weekly gig to attend to. I’ll admit to a little bit of sound board envy, not only did Chris Modl have a much bigger board, but he also had a snake that allowed him to run sound from the back of the room. Even more impressive was what he did with his board. At the end of the show, he copied the entirety of the Poltz show to a flash drive that you could purchase for $25. Brilliant.
I’ll admit though, it would be hard to imagine the audio of the show being as good without the visual. Poltz is tall and lanky, longish graying hair held in place by a sharp hat, a goofy smile, and a unique stage presence. He had broken his hand skiing in Canada less than two months before (even worse, on the eve of two sold out shows there), and he was restricted to playing guitar on only a few songs each night. That’s where the band came in. While the Truckee Brothers rhythm section of drummer Patrick Dennis (who also played an opening set of music from his band Wirepony) and bassist Chris Huffee had backed Poltz before, guitarist Sean was brought along because he was the only person Poltz knew who could learn all his songs in just a few days. When Poltz wasn’t playing guitar or strumming the bass while Sean did the finger work (looking like a bizarre conjoined bass player), he was dancing like a manic scarecrow, suit jacket flapping, heels kicking high.
His enthusiasm was so great that on one occasion he found himself tumbling into the seats, managing to stay upright with the help of the other person in the basement who was recovering from a broken bone. Once he was reminded of the injury, he apologized profusely and burst into an impromptu song about how they were two broken birds living in a basement. Thanks to the flash drive she forever has a record of the night Steve Poltz wrote a song about her. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night was “Sewing Machine Man.” Someone had challenged him to write a song with the words sewing machine in them. It took him awhile, but not only did he meet the challenge but he made it part of the title. He claims that the first time he played it for Jon Dee’s son Willie the poor kid ran from the room screaming halfway through. My only question was- why did it take him so long? I wouldn’t have made it past the first verse. His dark and twisted tale was like something from the Gothic Archies’ soundtrack to the Lemony Snicket movie “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” made even more intimidating by the way he acted it out. Now he says Willie begs him to play it, but I’m not so sure.
For the most part, it’s easier to remember his ridiculously entertaining show than it is the actual songs. They are good songs, but they don’t have a chance against the story of how after he broke his hand in Canada he had it set in a janitor’s closet by a “Dr Skully,” who may or may not have actually been a doctor. Or how he organized a Frazier Fair tour which included John Doe, Pete Droge and Glen Phillips in response to Lilith Fair.
If I do say so myself, the Blueheels’ Robby Schiller was an inspired choice as an opener. Contrary to his very vocal presence as frontman of one of Madison’s most popular bands, as a solo artist he concentrates on what he likes to call “sad bastard music.” Back when he was part of the weekly Honky Tonk Tuesday gig at Mickey’s I heard these songs every week. Now the chances to see him do songs like “The Wolves Outside,” “The Weather on TV,” and the surprisingly upbeat “Ukulele Blues” are rare. He’s always a quick wit, but I have seldom seen him as absolutely hilarious as he was tonight. In response to an audience member who said they would name his new and yet untitled song, he quipped, “I like Trinity for a girl.” As he ignored what may have been a slightly out of tune guitar, he claimed he knew how to tune a guitar, “I just choose not to.” On the other hand, apparently he has no idea how to tune the uke, which he used on two songs, theorizing that it was some sort of Zen process having something to do with his dog and fleas. The always-charming “Ukulele Blues” turned out to be a very successful sing-a-long, as the entire basement joined in on the chorus of “how can that be, cause baby I play the ukulele?”
Having a show on a Tuesday night can be a dicey proposition. Folks who are already timid about going to see a show in someone’s basement seem even more unlikely to come out during the week. Luckily Poltz’s reputation preceded him and we had a bigger group than we do most nights in the basement, and they were all treated to one hell of an entertaining evening.
Steve Poltz & band