Kind of blue
This article is from 2007.
Henry Northmore uncovers the legend of Seasick Steve, a true bluesman, whose life as panhandler, hobo, and record producer means he can truly walk the walk and talk the talk
Every now and then pop culture throws something into the public consciousness based solely on quality. It may not be fashionable, it’s not part of a new movement, it doesn’t fit into any scene, it’s just good.
This year’s phenomenal anomaly is Seasick Steve, a genuine hobo turned one man blues tour de force. Seasick is raw, ragged and achingly authentic, or ‘kinda low down blues and such,’ as the man himself describes it.
Born Steve Wold, Seasick was unceremoniously kicked out of his California home in the 50s at the tender age of 14, so he took to the road, travelling the length and breadth of America, panhandling, riding the railcars, sleeping rough, playing for money. He learned his craft the hard way with genuine experience to draw on for his rich pining blues and heartbreaking soul, all rounded off with a country vibe.
By the late 60s he found himself in San Francisco, playing with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins, finally finding some stability as a professional musician and sound engineer. In the 90s, while working in Olympia, Washington, he produced the first two Modest Mouse albums.
‘Of course it was great to meet all these old legends and that made a big impression,’ he says. ‘But the strongest memories are the characters I met briefly during the rambling years through the Midwest and South. The short moments when someone played a song on a beat-up guitar in a dirty boxcar, or an old guy played the harmonica and told stories, the old fashioned way, the walking folk-blues style. I never saw or heard ‘em again, they never got recorded, it was just there and then.’
Seasick’s favoured instrument is the ‘three-stringed trance wonder’ (‘biggest piece of shit in the world, I swear’ as he regularly proclaims at his gigs), an old guitar with just three strings that he refuses to patch up, producing the most astoundingly rich sounds from its battered frame. He accompanies himself on the ‘Mississippi drum machine’, a small wooden box adorned with a Mississippi licence plate, which Steve kicks for percussion.
Once a rambling man always a rambling man, Seasick now resides in Norway, following pitstops in France, Holland and the UK. He released his first solo record, Dog House Music in 2006, followed by Cheap, his first cut with Swedish rhythm section The Level Devils. Recently he has been championed by the likes of Jools Holland, Andy Kershaw and Mojo magazine, even winning Best Breakthough Act at their awards back in June.
Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to give the world the blues. Seasick Steve has picked up the baton to remind us just what the real blues is all about.
T on the Fringe, Liquid Room, 225 2564, 14 Aug, 7pm, £12.
More Edinburgh Blues
Tam White Two shows from the Scottish master of the blues vocal (solo and full band respectively), a man whose stage presence and ability to take a song – be it from the canon of Muddy Waters or Bob Dylan – and make it his own, is unsurpassed. Acoustic Music Centre@St Brides, 346 1405, 12 Aug, 7.15pm, £10 (£8); Spiegelgarden, 667 8940, 19 Aug, 8pm, £13.
Dave Acari Turn up to Seasick Steve’s show good and early for another local delicacy: armed with his trusty nation steel guitar, Acari does a stomping blues that owes as much to the early music of America’s deep south as it does any contemporary turns. T on the Fringe, Liquid Room, 225 2564, 14 Aug, 7pm, £12.
Belly of a Drunken Piano This may be a tribute show to the might and fancy of Tom Waits but Stewart D’Arrietta possesses a set of lungs to do justice to the great man’s repertoire. Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, until 26 Aug (not 13), 11.59pm, £12–£13 (£11–12).
John Renbourne The one-time Pentangle man’s guitar work in the 60s and 70s changed the way musos thought of folk and blues guitar playing and continues to delight with a folk-jazz-blues fusion. Acoustic Music Centre@St Brides, 346 1405, 14 Aug, 7.15pm, £12 (£10).
Johnny Dickinson Bottle neck guitar playing is a skill many flirt with, but few have mastered it quite like this nimble-fingered Englishman. Acoustic Music Centre@St Brides, 346 1405, 26 Aug, 7.15pm, £12 (£10).