Playing last night in front of a sparse crowd at Music Box Supper Club, singer-songwriters Steve Poltz and Grant Lee Phillips couldn’t stop talking about what a great time they were having together on their first-ever co-headlining tour. At the show’s start, they immediately launched into a bit of banter before Phillips finally said, “Let’s do a song together.” Their cover of “Gentle on My Mind,” a John Hartford song made famous by country singer Glen Campbell, had a simple elegance to it as the two gently strummed their acoustic guitars and sang vocal harmonies together.
Phillips then played a few songs by himself, first delivering the somber ballad “Nightbirds” and “The Straighten Outer,” a song he described as a “kind of dirge.” Dressed in a dark sportcoat and wearing a black cowboy hat, Phillips looked (and acted) the part of the traveling troubadour. During the course of his 45-minute set, he took a serious tone, playing ballads such as “Smoke and Sparks” and “Mighty Joe Moon,” a tune from his Grant Lee Buffalo days, with precision, emphasizing the quiet power of his husky voice.
Poltz returned to stage at the conclusion of Phillips set and the two played Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” another tune Campbell made famous. The stripped down rendition of the tune allowed Phillips and Poltz to show off their vocal harmonies.
His bushy gray hair tucked under a soft-brimmed hat, Poltz then took over for a 45-minute solo set of his own. Much more rambunctious than Phillips, Poltz started things off with “Give You Up for Lent” and then played “Music Box” at the request of an audience member. His set included several wacky numbers including “Sewing Machine,” a morbid song about a man who sews kids to the wall. Eyes bugging out, Poltz sang it as if were possessed and the tune that came off as a Grimm fairytale gone wrong. After recounting a story about playing Cleveland with his old band the Rugburns, who once opened for the Ramones at Blossom, Poltz played the Rugburns hit “Hitch Hiker Joe” and even tossed in an improvised rap about Cleveland that included references to the Flats, LeBron James and Johnny Manziel. It was a madcap movement that showed just how much Poltz loves experimenting with the singer-songwriter format.
Phillips returned to the stage to join Poltz for a two-song finale that included renditions of Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away” and the ’80s tune “Forever Young,” the latter of which found Phillips turning in a show-stopping, spot-on Neil Diamond imitation.
For some artists, playing to a sparsely filled club would be a good reason to dial things back. But not these two characters. They clearly revel in performing live and gave a truly memorably performance. Judging by the fact that they were mobbed at the merch table after the show, fans clearly appreciated the effort too.