Grant-Lee Phillips & Steve PoltzJan 27, 2016 | 0 comments
In a career defined by risk and reflection, Phillips only just recently took on the biggest gamble of his life…and with the wager comes The Narrows. For practically all of his time on Earth, songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips has reconciled widescreen mystery and wonder with his own experiences from a fixed vantage point. Not that California is such a myopic perch: The state whose very name implies the promise of reinvention and potential wealth encompasses such varied terrain as Stockton (the hardscrabble port town of Phillips’ birth), the now-fleeting bohemia of San Francisco, and the sprawling industry capitol that is Los Angeles – his home since age 19. “Los Angeles is a desert,” he explains from the road in Oslo, Norway, “It’s a hard place to plant your roots and a harder place to pull ’em up after some thirty years.” In 2013, he did just that: The lifelong California resident transplanted himself and his family to landlocked Tennessee. Reasons why abound, but answers to the questions the relocation posed are still emerging. His last LP, Walking in the Green Corn was a resonant meditation on translating his own ancestral legacy into the present era. As he was listening to the past, he heard echoes of his own experience – and those of his descendants – rolling off the Tennessee hills. “It held the promise of a quieter life,” he says, “something resembling my own rural upbringing in the San Joaquin Valley. And the people of the mid-south reminded me of home – my dad being from Arkansas, my mom from Oklahoma. And the soundtrack of my boyhood was so often tethered to Nashville…” This concentrated nexus of romance, recollection, historic struggles and tragedies, and peerless craftsmanship – coupled with the hopes, fears, and isolation that accompany transition – formed the backdrop of The Narrows, Phillips’ latest dispatch on Yep-Roc Records. Bathed in a woody, warmly reverberating sonic signature, the album’s thirteen songs are marked by longing and a resolute sense of purpose: As though hurling yourself full-force into the unknown is as sensible as any other more commonly prescribed course. After all, what feels unknown may be residing just below the surface – should you be willing to dig for it and be open to discovery. “Discovery is what I love the most about songwriting,” Phillips shares. “When it comes to albums, I tend to let the through-line reveal itself as I gather a collection of songs. Recurring themes tend to arise organically, and I enjoy encountering them like fresh webs in the morning.” The lure of Tennessee, the longing for change, trusting some sort of ancient unknown and a willingness to set out onto new paths are imprinted in the subtext of The Narrows, with the opening “Tennessee Rain” ringing out like a manifesto: “I’ll get to where I’m going,” Phillips sings assuredly. “The sun is still plenty high.” The power and substance so ably, tangibly imparted by The Narrows is humble validation of Phillips’ instincts and his subsequent decision to uproot. One of the first people to reach out to Phillips in Tennessee was drummer Jerry Roe – grandson of eccentric guitar virtuoso and songwriter Jerry Reed. Phillips had met him years before, when Roe told him, “If you ever want to make a record down here, I’m in – and I’ll help you find the right players who’ll get your stuff. But I wouldn’t move here.” “About a year later,” Phillips recalls, “I rang him up to say that I had ignored half of his advice, but wanted to take him up on the other half.” Roe introduced him to multi-instrumentalist Lex Price, who plays electric and upright bass throughout The Narrows, in addition to a bit of guitar and banjo. “As a trio, we were off and running.” Tracking live, vocals and all, from the studio floor of Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio, the core trio display uncanny sensitivity – mining their unfamiliarity with one another as a virtue that lends depth and humanity to Phillips’ observations. “This set of songs,” Phillips observes, “seem to pivot between the personal and historical – like a lens, focusing in and out. The Creek and the Cherokee, of which I’m descendent, called this land home before the removal. I’m captivated by the stories and the energy here.” The Narrows balances that history with Phillips’ own severance from his birthplace, his continued journey into marriage and fatherhood, and the passing of his own father. “Moccasin Creek,” delivered by the band with a daring sense of space and a vivid, clear-eyed vocal from Phillips, mines those emotional and geographical intersections. “I envisioned myself one day venturing into the Arkansas land where my father’s side of the family sprang forth,” Phillips explains. “There’s a part of the river down by the old family home known as the Narrows – the unfriendly part where you fight against the current and try to not to be pulled under. I saw in this a metaphor…” The tension between past and present, foundations and freedom, embodies nearly every song on The Narrows. The elliptically rolling, marimba-laced “Cry Cry” sings out from the perspective of one who’s ancestral home and culture has been lost. “Same people said that I was godless, same people showed me how to pray,” Phillips intones wearily, but with pronounced determination, “same people with a pen or a rifle, same people took it all away.” Riding in on a mid-tempo three-finger banjo roll, “Rolling Pin” turns the focus to the more quotidian, presenting a sonic scrapbook of Phillips’ early misadventures with his wife. “Heart don’t fail me now,” he prays, looking back at the fractured exhilaration that somehow congealed into something solid. The Narrows’ depth of subject matter, starkly dynamic performance, and uncluttered poetry put Phillips’ gift as a vocalist – as translator and living vessel of these ideas – to the test. His burnished tenor rings simultaneously confessional and confident, bringing an off-hand candor to his songs heaviest moments while imbuing the smaller moments with palpable awe. Occasional overdubs – keys, pedal steel, fiddle – enrich the song’s textures without detracting from the absorbing immediacy of the performances. Having access to Dan Auerbach collection of museum-quality vintage equipment (much of which has also been heard on records by Auerbach’s band the Black Keys) didn’t hurt either…and, cementing The Narrows’ Nashville bona fides, drummer Jerry Roe’s dad Dave, who played bass with Johnny Cash for eleven years, dropped in to add upright to the gently propulsive “No Mercy In July.” Thus far, Grant-Lee Phillips’ new home has lived up to its promise, the change of scenery producing an evocative, profound record that extends the city’s legacy of homespun craftsmanship and off-the-cuff recording methods. “True to his word,” Phillips concludes, “Jerry Roe turned me on to this other Nashville, which I suspected might exist – the kind of creative community I was yearning for. There’s a reason that Bob Dylan and Neil Young were drawn here to make seminal albums…but wherever you’re coming from, music has a way of transcending a lot of boundaries. It needs no passport, but if it did, it would have a stamp from every place on the green earth….”
To suggest that Steve Poltz isn’t normal is about as safe a statement as one could make. You would basically require the powers of the Hubble space telescope to locate Steve Poltz from any region of normalcy.
For music fans on both sides of the equator, this is a very good thing.
Born among the hearty seafaring folk of Canada’s Halifax, Nova Scotia, Poltz has lived most of his life in Southern California, where the sun treated his rocky Canadian DNA like clothes in a dryer. Naturally a spectrum of cultural and emotional tensions arose and he eventually sought refuge in the art of songwriting, where he tapped into an unforgettable and often horrifying depth of unhinged genius.
Among the music cognoscenti, Steve Poltz is regarded as one of the most talented and prolific songwriters of our time. His songs have been among the longest running ever on the Billboard Top 100 and they regularly appear in movie soundtracks, television shows, and even the odd commercial. His touring schedule is ferocious, ping ponging between continents with enough frequency to earn him manic followings in scores of different accents and languages.
Any musician who has traveled as extensively as Poltz will have their share of colorful road stories, but Poltz’ adventures read like a bucket list. Starting out auspiciously, Poltz recalls meeting Elvis Presley at a small airport and beaming proudly as The King hugged his sister for an inordinately long time. Growing up in Palm Springs, California, he trick-or-treated at Liberace’s house and was Bob Hope’s favorite altar boy. In an alcohol-soaked haze, he infamously accosted David Cassidy, who had summoned him to Las Vegas to write a hit song for the aging Tiger Beat cover boy.
His rich and colorful legacy is the stuff of legend, but it is his distinctive style of songwriting that has caused the world to offer up its stages, clubs, and alleys. Poltz’ sound is entirely unique- from his inhuman fingerstyle techniques to the inimitable melodies that roll from his guitar like cool waterfalls, you know a Poltz song as soon as you hear it. To see Steve to perform live is one of the most entertaining shows a human could ever see. Frenzied, aggressive, hilarious, and heartbreakingly sincere, his live performances have become bona fide events, with sub-cultures popping up all over the globe to entice him to come and tour. As relentless as he is in concert, he is also the guy who famously co-wrote the timeless ballad “You Were Meant For Me” with platinum-selling songwriter Jewel. Of course, because we’re talking about Steve Poltz, it should surprise no one to learn that the song was written on a lazy Mexican beach, where Poltz and Jewel were soon snapped up and sequestered by Mexican Federales and required to witness and eventually assist in a large marijuana bust on the beach. Don’t believe it? See for yourself in the pictures on his web site.
Poltz, an ex high school wrestler (98 pound class), is also an obsessive baseball fan, a die-hard yoga practitioner, a hopeless romantic, a smart-ass philosopher and a child-like adventurer with an absurdist’s view of the planet and all of its curious life forms.
Music fans have adored him since he first fronted the hallowed punk-folk legends, The Rugburns, whose live shows earned the band a following that is best described somewhere between the terms “cult” and “crazed substance-abusing fanatics.” Once touring over 300 days a year, the Rugburns occasionally reunite for wildly popular sold-out shows.
Poltz’ solo body of work is an impressive collection of ballads, rockers and uniquely melodic acoustic numbers that reflect his incomparable style of alternate tunings and savage finger picking techniques. Guitar geeks fall prostrate at his feet trying vainly to learn how to play his stunningly gorgeous and deceptively complex songs. To see him play guitar is a visual feast so frenetic that close proximity to his playing exposes one to risk of seizure.
His albums reflect the depth and expanse of his influences throughout the years (One Left Shoe, Chinese Vacation, Traveling and Unraveling). He has also released a children’s album (The Barn), a performance DVD (Tales From The Tavern) and a collection of other recordings that defy categorization, such as Answering Machine – a 56-track collection of 45 second “songs” culled from his answering machine’s outgoing messages. Neil Young has ranked it as a favorite album.
Steve Poltz’s latest recording project brought him back to Halifax, where he collaborated with Joel Plaskett, an award-winning Canadian songwriter, performer, producer and eminently kindred spirit. The two holed up in Joel’s Scotland Yard studio with a 2 inch,16 track analog tape machine, a 24 hour work ethic, their comfy clothes, and all the mojo they could conjure. The result was Dreamhouse,” Steve’s most accomplished and focused album to date. Critically acclaimed across the globe, it has been singled out by some critics as the 2010 Album of the Year.
His live shows have captivated audiences far and wide with a mix of singing, storytelling, shredding, and the occasional spoken word rants which have been known to incite riots. He can take an audience from laughter to tears and back again in the space of the same song. Steve Poltz transcends the word “talented.” He is unforgettable in all the right ways.
Written by Joe Daly