Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seasick Steve

Seasick Steve is a White retro blues guy who plays, amongst other things, a three stringed slide guitar and channels the spirit of Hound Dog Taylor and John Lee Hooker with his trance slide boogies.

I'd seen the I Started Out With Nothing And I Still Got Most of It Left in my local Musica but never investigated him as the name meant nothing to me and the name Seasick Steve made him sound like some novelty folk act and not a gritty downhome blues act.

This perception was swept away when I saw a YouTube clip of him performing "Doghouse Boogie" on Later with Jools Holland. My wife and I were in a B & B in Salisbury in the county of Wiltshire in England during what turned out to be the wettest English holiday ever. On rainy afternoon, while my wife slept the sleep of the deeply exhausted I sat next to her in bed trawling through YouTube, with fast broadband at my command, and made two discoveries. One was Seasick Steve and the other was Kate Upton, but that is another tale.

Back in London I had already bought Steve's debut album, recorded with the Level Devils, as part of an HMV two-CDs-for-£10 deal. I cannot rightly remember why I bought this album except that it was cheap and I was kinda curious who this dude was and I reckoned, if he records with a backing group, it might not actually be some folky guy on acoustic guitar singing ditties about the Oklahoma dust bowl. Or unhappy naval adventures.

At the time I saw Steve on YouTube I had not yet listened to the album. The first clip was "Doghouse Boogie" on which he introduced his trance guitar and Mississippi drum machine, and proceeded to tear the house down. This was not the typically anaemic Britmusic so often featured on Jools Holland's show. Needless to say I was immediately smitten.

Once I'd seen and heard Steve perform on the number of clips available on YouTube I was truly keen on getting to know more about the man. I looked him up on WikiPedia, as I should have done in the first place, and at the first available opportunity, which was at the HMV branch in the Dolphin Shopping Centre in Poole in Dorset, I acquired, as part of yet another two for £10 offer, the second (Dog House Music) and third (I Started Out With Nothing And I Got Most Of It Left) albums. "Doghouse Boogie" is on the second album.

Steve, if I may so bold, is older than my father in law and has been around doing all minds of things, including following a career in music, for a long time before his breakthrough on the Jools Holland show. Presumably he knows a bit more about playing the guitar than the studied primitivism displayed on YouTube. Tough, no nonsense slide guitar workouts with a solid boogie base is generally a visceral pleasure of no mean intensity. It takes a master of the craft, ostensibly so simple yet so rich in infinite subtle variety, to make it seem new each time. Elmore James and Albert King are both blues guitarists who had a basic library of licks but who made each note and each variation count, not only with hard hitting intensity but also with subtle differences in the flavouring that keeps the listener interested.

Seasick Steve's slide trance guitar and Mississippi drum machine (a box on which he stomps his foot) are nothing new in blues. John Lee Hooker, for one, was famous for a hypnotic, trancelike guitar style accompanied by a hard-tapping foot.

One of the amazing things about blues is that this mind of simplicity and rigid primitivism survives, has adherents and still mesmerises fans. Since the commercial breakthrough of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the mid-Eighties and Gary Moore's equally commercial forays into blues territory, blues became much more of a commodity than before and became yet another accepted facet of the broad concept of pop music. Slickness and chops ruled. Downhome simplicity and sincerity seemed to survive only on labels like Fat Possum Records who deliberately sought out the unknown backwoods bluesmen who had been playing to their friends and family for years while holding down a day job, keeping alive a folk blues tradition.

On the face of it Steve looks more like a Hillbilly country singer than a raw, downhome bluesman. In fact, he looks more like a construction worker or long distance truck driver. Either way, I would not have regarded him as a person who even listened to blues much less play it.

The other weird thing in this day and age is that his style is so primitive, gut bucket and downright old-fashioned. It sounds as if he is playing the cheapest possible guitar, possibly homemade, especially the one string diddley bow, through the most fucked up amplifier ever. Who does that anymore? Jack White? Joe Bonamassa is the very essence of the contemporary, commercially sussed blues musician; even Derek Trucks, who comes from authenticity, prefers a sophisticated, modern take on his roots.

Steve sounds exactly like how you would imagine a musician would sound playing on his back porch somewhere down south in Mississippi or Alabama, except that it would be hard to believe that he has any electricity at his flypaper shack. Perhaps it's a car battery that powers the amp.

He stomps and hollers and tells blues home truths, in the grand old blues tradition, where he is apparently singing about all the good and bad things that have ever happened to him. in between he tells stories about significant events in his life. Shaggy dog stories (one of them indeed deals with a dog) that seem a tad pointless in the context of the music. Perhaps someone should record Steve and release a spoken word biography.

Listening to 3 Seasick Steve albums in a row can be a tad rough. Each one is quite exciting and sometimes almost intolerably visceral and too much amphetamine rush can be too enervating over the long haul to make the experience worthwhile. On sober reflection I wondered whether the perfect dose of Seasick Steve would not simply have been a couple of YouTube clips.

Is this guy for real or is he some method actor with a carefully constructed alter ego with comprehensive back story and all? I guess he ain't the Blues Brothers but sometimes a sneaking doubt creeps in. Too much authenticity with this much craft and attention to musical detail seems to be just too suspiciously seamlessly perfect.

Let me be perfectly clear on this: I love this kind of stuff. I'm not so purist that I believe blues can only be good if it is as simple, primitive and roots as possible yet that kind of blues appeals more to my gut than the more sophisticated styles that have achieved commercial success over the last thirty years. in the same way that Led Zeppelin, while itself brilliant and subtle as well as overpowering, caused a whole bunch of mediocre metal acts to batter our ears, the breakthrough of Stevie Ray Vaughan resulted in a lot of musicians turning to blues and making an effort to take it to an audience who prosed sleek sophistication and technical expertise more than simple yet effective emotional impact.

Who knows whether Steve can compete with all and any shredders out there in his mastery of the electric guitar. This primitive approach might in fact be just a schtick and a way of making a. Mark in a. Marketplace that is saturated with Bonamassa types. Whatever it is, it is highly persuasive as an argument towards owning Seasick Steve product.

Steve does not advance the cause of the blues as anything more than a revitalised tradition. The music itself is not startlingly different. The intriguing aspect is that we have someone here who is still playing music like this in 2012.