Saturday, June 2, 2018

Live at the Belly Up: Steve Poltz, Trouble in the Wind (KPBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched two music programs on KPBS: their own production, Live at the Belly Up, and one from the PBS station in Nashville, Bluegrass Underground, in which various bands (not only bluegrass but other genres as well) descend into the depths of the earth and perform in a hollowed-out underground cave with great acoustics. (They have to bring themselves and their equipment down in the sorts of miniature trains used by coal miners.) The acts on last night’s Live at the Belly Up — named after a far more prosaic location, the legendary Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach — and featured local songwriter Steve Poltz and a band from Carlsbad called Trouble in the Wind. To the extent Poltz has a reputation at all, it was from a song called “You Were Meant for Me” that he co-wrote with Jewel while the two were on a road trip together before she became famous. Since he wrote the song with Jewel, she had him featured in the video — he stroked her cheek in an affectionate but not especially sexual gesture — and as he joked last night, for years people looked at him on the street and recognized him as “that dude in the Jewel video.” In this Live at the Belly Up program, copyrighted 2014 (haven’t they done any since?), Poltz performed more or less alone — I say “more or less” because while all we and the Belly Up audience got to see was him standing at a mike playing an acoustic guitar and singing, there was an offstage sound person (I think Poltz said it was his cousin) adding electronic effects and in one case playing a pre-recorded Poltz guitar part — one could tell because on the last song, “The Long Haul,” he walked into the audience and left his guitar on stage, but you could still hear guitar even though no one visible was playing one.

Poltz opened with an instrumental called “Chinese Checkers” and then did a song called “I Want All My Friends to Be Happy,” which he said was inspired by the death of a long-time friend of his from cancer — and the fact that Poltz could write a song about the death of a friend from cancer and call it “I Want All My Friends to Be Happy” says volumes about his irreverence, his sense of humor and his overall good-naturedness. He’s not one of those singer-songwriters who goes up in front of a microphone and presents himself as, “I’m bearing my soul for you so you’d better take me seriously!” (At one point — the song is written in the persona of his late friend — he sings, “I want to tell cancer to go fuck itself,” which of course got bleeped, and then in a spoken aside he apologized to KPBS for forcing them to bleep him and breaking his promise not to swear on the taping. Then he got the audience to sing along, and of course KPBS bleeped them.) Then he did a sort of rap-lite number called “Kickin’ It Old Skool” [sic] that paid tribute to the fact that the show was being filmed for KPBS and which featured Poltz doing clever boom-box imitations while his offstage cousin did some mild rap-style sound effects behind him. His next song was the inevitable “You Were Meant for Me,” which isn’t as good as the 1929 Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed song of the same title but still charms — Jewel’s original recording made her debt to Melanie ultra-clear but the song takes on a different affect with a man singing it — which he followed up with a song called “Spirit Hands” and one called “The Long Haul” which he presented as a tribute to his mother. I’m not a Poltz fanatic but every time I run into him or his music I find him amusing and charming, and like his music, his physical looks are quirky but appealing; he’s not a sex god but he is attractive in that sort of dorky way that no doubt Jewel wanted to showcase when she put him in her video.

The band Trouble in the Wind is from Carlsbad and now — four years after they appeared on this show — they’re about to release their first album (they’re playing a release party for it at the Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside on July 28;, and their featured singer, Robby Gira, described himself in one of the interstital interviews as being influenced by Roy Orbison, Billie Holiday and David Bowie. I don’t hear any of Billie in his vocals and only a little of Bowie; mostly he sounds like Lou Reed trying to do Roy Orbison, and his voice is O.K. but I found it a bit wearing after a while. They’re also described as a band rooted in surf music but I don’t hear anything of the Beach Boys in them, either, especially since Gira is the only singer — the other band members don’t even contribute backing vocals — and the only other voice we got on their Live at the Belly Up appearance was Gira’s sister Lauren, who joined him for a duet on a song called “When You Are Drunk” and whose voice sounded like a higher-lying version of her brother’s. They’re an interesting band, and the members are Robby Gira, vocals and acoustic guitar; Trevor Mulvey, bass and electric bass; Kyle Merritt, piano, accordion, electric guitar and banjo; Larry Doran, drums and percussion; and Keith Haman, electric guitar, pedal steel guitar and piano. Their Web site also credits Haman and Doran with backing vocals, but if they sang on last night’s show, I didn’t notice them. Their songs were “Can’t Help but Think,” “Cheek to Cheek” (which required a lot of, pardon the pun, cheek to rip off the title of the great song Irving Berlin wrote for Fred Astaire’s and Ginger Rogers’ big dance in Top Hat! It’s hardly at the level of Berlin’s classic but it’s a nice enough piece of material), “When You Are Drunk,” “Safe,” “Let Me Get Down,” “Pretty Please” and “Rising” (another title that’s been used by far more talented people — Bruce Springsteen and Yoko Ono). They’re a nice enough band in a pretty straightforward 1970’s rock vein, and Kyle Merritt’s banjo and accordion add a distinctive element to their sound even though they’re hardly at the level of Arcade Fire in terms of using non-rock (or not normally rock) instruments to add texture and depth, but I liked them overall and they were a good pairing for Steve Poltz.