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Seasick Steve

There’s examples of artists who finally hit pay-dirt after years of obscurity, but the tale of Steven Gene Wold (aka SEASICK STEVE, born 1941 in Oakland, California) is a joy to behold, as he, after 45 years on the fringes of music and beyond, found himself on TV, with hit albums and the toast of the critics.
Though it didn’t start out that way for Steve, having plied his gruff blues storytelling along America’s west coast rubbing shoulders with the likes of JANIS JOPLIN in the 60s and Kurt Cobain in Olympia, Washington in the 80s. Much has been made of Steve’s life spent as a hobo, travelling around America’s rail system (WOODY GUTHRIE-style) in search of work. In truth, he’s spent more time as a recording engineer – he produced the 1996 debut album for US indie outfit MODEST MOUSE.
Steve claims his 3-string guitar “The Trance Wonder” may be haunted, and attributes much of his success to the piece. Having played extensively for decades but never officially recorded, he decanted to Paris and then on to Norway in the early 00s, and it was there he recorded his debut album CHEAP (2004) {*6}, credited to him with the Level Devils as backing. The result was seriously lo-fi replete with telephoned in vocal sound, and arrangements of nodding, stripped down blues.
His solo debut DOG HOUSE MUSIC (2006) {*7} took things back to basics even further, Steve’s guitar slide work and parts of it sound like it could have been recorded 70 years ago, especially stand out tracks like the almost GUTHRIE-esque `Fallen Off A Rock’, the ZZ TOP/SATRIANI-esque `Dog House Boogie’ and the Spartan but expressive love song `Shirly Lou’. This album caught the attention of TV musical magpie Jools Holland, who booked Steve for his UK TV debut as part of his 2006 Hogmanay Hootenanny special.
Steve’s star began to rise in earnest at this time and 2008’s I STARTED OUT WITH NOTHIN AND I STILL GOT MOST OF IT LEFT {*8} was his major label debut, by which time he was filling major theatres in the UK and Europe, audiences marvelling at the Trance Wonder. The title track is a sweet humoured and warm as the man himself while the chugging `St Louis Slim’ employs a funky beat to great effect. The album was cleaner and more upbeat than its predecessors but no less compelling, his itchy guitar work and soulful rumble rarely needing or even benefitting from augmentation. The album and its aftermath garnered Steve a pair of consecutive Brit nominations for International Solo Male Artist, and he cut a novel shape through the rap show-offs, photo-fit popsters and the strutting indie boys also nominated. The UK Top 10 album was quickly followed by the equally successful MAN FROM ANOTHER TIME (2009) {*6} which aped its predecessor but lacked some of the fizz of old.
He took to hanging with rock royalty again, as Led Zepp’s JOHN PAUL JONES contributed to YOU CAN’T TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS (2011) {*8} – as did Steve’s son Paul, who showed up on drums. Dirty, cruddy stompers like `Back In The Doghouse’, the smouldering creep of `Burnin’ Up’ and the swaggering title track showed Steve back at his energised best. A singular talent, Steve continued to win friends at numerous summer festivals and gained gold record status for all but one of his albums, something all the more marvellous when you consider he gained recognition without changing or compromising on one note of his music.
Taking its inspirational title from his custom-made Morris Minor guitar, HUBCAP MUSIC (2013) {*7}, stuck to his tried-and-tested blues formula, with little variation from the norm one-man ZZ TOP show. JOHN PAUL JONES was again at his side on bass (Dan Magnusson performed on drums), while former paymaster JACK WHITE took up his recognisable ‘Zepp-styled axe-playing on one of the better compositions, `The Way I Do’. Polydor’s Fiction Records were behind the UK Top 20, while America let it ferment for a month; other highlights included `Keep On Keepin’ On’, opener `Down On The Farm’, `Freedom Road’ and the country, Gram-vs.-Emmylou-styled duet, `Purple Shadows’, with as yet an unknown honey-coated singer.
A blues singer that performed all his own songs rather than raid the vaults of the giants, SEASICK STEVE was rare, and nothing was about to change for album seven, SONIC SOUL SURFER (2015) {*7}. Veering at times toward heavy/hard rock, it seems his American homeland can embrace other country-bluesmen but not their own Steven Wold. Top 5 in his adopted Britain (he also lives with his wife in the Netherlands), the mould was set and the amps cranked up high for `Roy’s Gang’ and the single `Bring It On’. Interspersed by a handful of laid-back horizontal numbers like `We Be Moving’, `In Peaceful Dreams’ and `Heart Full Of Scars’ (that possibly point the way for a man well into his seventies), he still picked up the boogie assaults elsewhere for the title track, among others.
Just how far can an artist stretch the blues? Well, the seasoned SEASICK STEVE was going to answer fans of the genre by offering up a double-set in album eight, KEEPIN’ THE HORSE BETWEEN ME AND THE GROUND (2016) {*7}. A hit on the continent (UK Top 10), the variety and range of his talents was only apparent on the vein-busting `Gypsy Blood’ and the fragile beauty of `Shipwreck Love’. 20 songs in total, the lonesome cowboy delivered more than a few duds here, but that mattered not to a man enjoying his twilight years on top of the world. The set was certainly worth further inspection to gauge the feeling of the man, even in the softer, “side two” readings of JOHN HARTFORD’s `Gentle On My Mind’ and FRED NEIL’s `Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me’ to LOVE’s `Signed D.C.’ and HANK WILLIAMS’ `I’m So Lonesome’; and one could almost count as covers the doctored double-take of “Ode To Billie Joe” for his groovy `Bullseye’ and/or NORMAN GREENBAUM for his “Spirit In The Sky”-like `Hell’.
How far can one man facilitate folk-blues into the mainstream? Well judging by the underachieving UK Top 30 slot for CAN U COOK? (2018) {*7} – SEASICK STEVE’s ninth album – not as far his new bosses at BMG would want. Knocking on the door of 80 years young, the world’s best-loved pro-busker probably still sells more records than the long-established BILLY F GIBBONS, but with usual lack of backing on home-soil Steve makes the best of his time on Earth. Of the baker’s dozen of tracks here in show, the derivative SS was certainly at his most slick on `Hate Da Winter’, `Young Blood’ and the happy-go-unlucky `Locked Up And Locked Down Blues’; he’d be touring to promote the set with his merry band, drummer Crazy Dan and Luther Dickinson (of the North Mississippi Allstars).
© MC Strong 2011/GFD2-MR / rev-up MCS Aug2012-Oct2018

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