The near tragedy and triumphant return of Steve Poltz

Clare Foster
Guitarfish fans show their support for Steve Poltz.
Photo by Clare Foster

Months after he suffered a stroke during a performance, Steve Poltz is back doing what he has done for decades, making people dance, laugh and cry during his passionate, one-man shows. But he has changed.

“You know what’s weird is, ever since I had this stroke, all I’ve been doing is listening to the Dead,” he said. “I was never into the Grateful Dead, but I had a stroke and became a Dead Head. All of a sudden it all made sense to me.”

Tahoe Onstage
Steve Poltz
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Humor is emphasized in Poltz’s one-man performances, so when the stroke occurred, and he repeated a song verse five times at the World Café Live in Wilmington, Delaware, the audience laughed. Poltz lost most of his vision on Oct. 22, 2014, but he completed the show. After his sight returned, he wanted to drive to his next gig, but was convinced instead to go to a hospital.

“They did all kinds of tests, and they said, ‘We’re not really sure why you had a stroke, but you did,’ ” Poltz said. “ ‘Take a baby aspirin each night to keep your blood a little thinner.’ … So now I have an $80,000 hospital bill to tell me to take a baby aspirin.”

Poltz, 55, decided he was through with music.

“I didn’t play for six weeks, which for me was like years because I play every day,” he said. “I just walked by my guitar and didn’t want anything to do with it. I just thought that is what caused it. When I got out of the hospital it was like I was in a daze. It was like somebody whacked me across the head with a 2 by 4. It felt like I was super stoned and I didn’t want to do anything except just take care of myself, eat well and sleep and avoid anything that had to do with this business that I’m in. Not that that’s what caused it but, in my mind, I think I was blaming my work schedule.”

Poltz doesn’t drink and says he eats a healthy diet. However, he’s a relentless worker and his family’s health history isn’t so good.

“It’s real easy for me to overextend myself because if I wanted to I could play 365 shows a year in different cities because there are a lot of cities and a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I’m the type of person who always says yes. Now I say no more often than I used to.”

A dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, Poltz was raised in San Diego, where in the 1990s he formed the band the Rugburns. A prolific songwriter, Poltz collaborated with Jewel, who broke out nationally with a song she penned with Poltz, “You Were Meant For Me.” Since he began performing solo, Poltz has built a devout legion of supporters in North America and Australia.

Fans often burst into tears when they meet Poltz.

“It doesn’t faze me anymore because it’s happened for years,” he said. “I give them a hug and then they start laughing and they don’t know why they are crying. I guess the performances can be kind of emotional for some people. People get passionate about what they like and music has a way of moving people. All I know is I am lucky I get to do this for a living.”

Every performance is unique. Poltz never uses a set list and his improvisation, delivered with humor and charm, creates rapt audiences. He said he starts with “whatever my fingers feel like playing.” He has so many songs from which to choose, his shows can go anywhere. That’s why the audience figured he was clowning when he had the onstage stroke.

Poltz has funny stories about playing the national anthem before San Francisco Giants games, where he developed a friendship with Tim Flannery, who retired from baseball coaching after the 2014 World Series and now devotes himself to the band Tim Flannery and the Lunatic Fringe.

“When he was still coaching, he would open for me, and because I wasn’t drinking, I would be the designated driver,” Poltz said. “He loved learning. He called it the Fantasy Troubadour Camp.”

At last month’s High Sierra Music Festival, Poltz, Flannery and Dan Bern hosted a workshop in which the trio exclusively played songs about baseball.

Members of the Grateful Dead also take requests to play the national anthem, and they befriended Flannery, who has a new record. One of the songs is the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” featuring Bob Weir, Jerry Jeff Walker, Mickey Raphael, Flannery and Poltz.

Travel is the most time-consuming part of Poltz’s life. He said he was thrilled to discover a Sirius XM satellite radio station dedicated to the Grateful Dead. He said he listened to a live performance that included a half-hour drum solo. He stopped to get a drink at Starbucks and when he returned to the car, the drum solo continued. He later stopped for gas, and when he resumed driving, the drum solo was still happening. He never did say if the drumming ended before he reached his destination. But it’s just fodder for another story for Poltz back on the job.

“I took four months off and I was kind of scared the first time I went back onstage,” he said. “It’s so weird how the body works. I think we have these things called forgetters, otherwise if we remembered every bad thing that ever happened to us, we wouldn’t get anything done. So our forgetters kick in to help us cope. Now I am back out and play shows like it never happened. It’s weird.”

Related story: Steve Poltz describes his onstage stroke: “A Long Short Story.” LINK

  • Comatopia
    Aug. 14-16 at Calpine, 33 miles north of Truckee.
    The Brothers Comatose (host)
    Hot Buttered Rum
    Steve Poltz
    The Sam Chase
    Easy Leaves
    The Dixie Giants


Tahoe Onstage
Steve Poltz strikes a pose for Tahoe Onstage at the High Sierra Music Festival.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage








ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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