By Ben Salmon

The Bulletin

Where to see him

Steve Poltz

• 6 tonight at Sisters Art Works

• 1 p.m. Saturday at Village Green Main Stage

• 3 p.m. Sunday at Melvin’s Market

On Sunday at last year’s Sisters Folk Festival, the streets buzzed with the name Steve Poltz, a San Diego singer-songwriter who had played three sets in three days, including one where he crowdsurfed across the audience in the backyard of Angeline’s Bakery.

Crowdsurfing. At a folk festival.

If you know Poltz or have seen him play, this is no surprise. The guy is as gregarious as humans get, a master storyteller with a salty vocabulary, and a former punk-rocker (his band The Rugburns experienced moderate success in the mid-1990s) who now writes folk songs that are funny and heartfelt and subversive and sincere, sometimes all at once.

(He also co-wrote Jewel’s massive 1996 hit “You Were Meant For Me.”)

“I just like to play,” Poltz said Tuesday. “I really like my job, so wherever I go, I like to give everything.”

Poltz arrives in Sisters after recent gigs in Australia, eastern Canada and Arkansas. That’s a grueling travel schedule, but it’s nothing compared to the ups and downs of his past two decades: The Rugburns ended, and Rugburns fans were angry when Poltz released a mellow album. He got dropped from a major label and a big-time booking agency. He was booted from Jewel’s band.

“I couldn’t even get a call returned,” Poltz said. “Looking back, I go, ‘Man, I could’ve just quit,’ because things got really depressing for a while.”

He continued: “It’s all those things that happen in the music business and it could’ve made me bitter and just go ‘Screw this, I’m just gonna go get a job doing something else.’ But for some reason I had enough of a following — a small one — to (think) ‘I can really build upon this. I’ve just got to be my own person.’”

He found inspiration in Ani DiFranco, the folk-rock singer who famously stayed independent even as her star rose. Poltz signed on with smaller booking agencies. He put out his own records. He took advantage of technology, using social media, his website and a blog to connect with fans.

“I had to rebuild it on my own,” he said.

It worked. Poltz says he’s getting the best gig offers of his career, and his globe-trotting tour schedule is evidence that he’s telling the truth.

“I love it. I was born for this,” he said. “I could play 365 days a year if I wanted. I know I’ve got to give myself a break (but) the offers are just so good and the gigs are all so fun. Everything’s clicking right now.”

Of course, more gigs means more opportunities for Poltz’s personality to not only shine, but perhaps rub people the wrong way. As he plays more and more folk festivals and family-friendly events, he has become the guy who gets approached by event organizers before the show for … well, let’s say a little talking-to.

“I always get these warnings from people (saying), ‘Hey, don’t drop any F-bombs.’ When I was younger, I would’ve said, ‘F--k you!’” he says with a laugh. “But being older, you learn things (and) you just don’t care as much.”

Instead of cursing on stage, Poltz delights in finding less direct ways to make the audience and/or promoter squirm. He’ll tell stories that are technically clean but not necessarily G-rated. Or he’ll using rhyming words to get his point across. He stops short of outright offending folks, though.

“I don’t want to alienate people,” he said. “I want to have the whole audience arm in arm with a sense of redemption and salvation. I just wanna make ‘em feel a little uneasy when they’re on the route to doing that.”

If that sounds like the mindset of a veteran artist who’s at home on stage and comfortable in his own skin, it is. And that’s a glorious thing.

“Now is a really good time to be me, but it took all these years to be me again,” Poltz said. “(That’s why) at this age I’m at, I’m so appreciative of it. I don’t want to say no. And that’s why the work is so fun to me. Because I honestly feel like I earned it. I don’t have a machine behind me. It’s just me.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0377, bsalmon@bendbulletin.com

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