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SEASICK STEVE (Wolves Civic)

02-02-2009

Seasick Steve

One of the most unlikely touring stars of recent times headed to the Civic last Thursday. Steve Beauchampe revels in an improbable gig.

The right place at the right time can be a great location, as Steve Wold would surely testify.

For most of his 67 years, Wold was anything but in the right place. Leaving home at aged thirteen to escape a violent stepfather - he came close to shooting the nasty old critter - he spent the next few decades living off his wits, riding freight trains, getting work when he could, scrounging and even stealing when he couldn’t.

And he busked, playing country blues on the guitar he’d learned as a kid when the piano had proved too tough.

Even after marrying his Norwegian wife he’s still had 56 homes in 25 years, though work as a record producer (Modest Mouse, The Motor City Devils) touring musician (playing in John Lee Hooker and Lighnin’ Hopkins’ bands) resulted in more settled employment.

In 2004 his debut album, Cheap, by Seasick Steve (as was now his moniker) and the Level Devils, got picked up by Jools Holland, an appearance on the Hootenanny followed on New Year’s Eve 2006 and well, here we are two years later at a sold out Wolves Civic.

But first a minor diversion; London duo Joe Gideon and The Shark kicked things off in fine style, the creeping menace of their Nick Cave-esque texts bolstered by bursts of thunderous drumming, piano and less identifiable percussive devices. A band well worth keeping an eye on and an ear out for.

With a slightly oddball, though intimate, stage set - mixing Victorian front parlour with old ladies’ stoop - Seasick Steve, Level Devil drummer Dan Magnussen and Wold P.M. Wold (son of Sick) on washboard, gourd, tambourine and guitar, meander on stage, the main man sporting dungarees, a simple white tee and a John Deere baseball cap, picking at a guitar, eventually placing his burly frame in a chair, centre stage.

The audiences may be considerably larger, the clamour surrounding him a bit crazy, but in essence, Seasick’s show would be little different whether he were he playing to hobos and tramps round a camp fire or to a crowd of drinkers in a Tennessee bar.

Though acknowledging Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson as influences (to which could surely be added Leadbelly and Son House), unlike many of his musical peers, Seasick plays almost exclusively his own songs, with much of tonight’s show taken from last year’s I Started Out With Nuthin’ And I Still Got Most Of It Left collection.

Tales of his wayward life abound, but there’s no sense of bitterness or regret in his stories, just warmth, honest reflection and wry humour. Nor in the inter-song banter so integral to the show, only now the tales of jumping trains, spells in the jailhouse and the ‘dawgs’ - such as Boss and Trixie - that were often his best friends, are interspersed with expressions of gratitude to the audiences and musical friends who have made him an unlikely success after years of anonymity.

And like Seasick Steve’s life, the show finds its own pace, never hurried but never losing its way, with many songs adapted for live performance (or perhaps it’s that they were adapted for recording).

There are moments of intense playing, Seasick rising from his chair, heating up the licks and hollering out the lyrics, and there are moments of quiet, as on the title tack of I Started Out With Nuthin’ and Cast No Man from 2006’s Dog House Blues (famously recorded in mono in his kitchen).

True, the palette of a country blues man may be somewhat limited (it’s arguable that while every respectable record collection needs one Seasick Steve album, two may not be essential), but the guy’s got bucket loads of charisma and is smart enough to have developed a few trademarks of his own, such as the Mississippi Drum Machine (a wooden box he stomps his foot on for the purpose of percussion) and the ‘legendary’ Three-String Trance Wonder (a guitar sold him for $75 dollars by a friend).

He plays six different guitars tonight - mostly electric, several heavily personalised, all fairly beat up, but sadly another customised instrument, the One-Stringed Diddley Bow, made by a friend and played with a screwdriver, is absent injured.

Accepted, there are lots of good, honest blues players around who never get the recognition and acclaim Seasick Steve is now enjoying. Maybe the guy just got lucky, but he surely deserved a break and given that the day when blues fills the nations’ charts and i-Pods just ain’t going to come, it’s better that at least one guy who champions the genre gets cut some slack.

Closing his near two-hour set with a visceral Dog House Boogie, Seasick Steve leaves the stage, very slowly, lapping up every moment of applause. He’ll probably never cease to be amazed by his success and told the audience that he’d like to play some smaller venues again next time. Damn it, by then he’ll probably be able to afford to buy a train of his own to tour the country in!

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