wed 30/09/2020

Seasick Steve, Electric Ballroom | reviews, news & interviews

Seasick Steve, Electric Ballroom

Seasick Steve, Electric Ballroom

Hobo-turned-bluesman gets down and dirty with his eccentric collection of guitars

A guitar with one string? There is indeed such a thing. It’s played by Seasick Steve, and it consists of a stubby plank of wood, a pick-up and a couple of nails. And a string. The man born 70 years ago as Steven Wold plays it with a slide, and it makes a fabulous, sleazy sound. It’s one of a collection of manky-looking instruments played by Seasick Steve, the former hobo, drifter, session musician and studio engineer who has experienced a late blossoming in popularity as a bluesman and raconteur.

His other instruments include a guitar made out of a broom handle and two Morris Minor hubcaps, and another that has only three strings; by my reckoning, the fewer the strings, the better, as his more rudimentary guitars make much the better sound – dark and viscous, like molasses.

It was festivals that brought Seasick Steve to the attention of the wider British public: a few summers ago he played them all, enchanting his (mostly) young audiences with his stories of life on the road, and thrilling them with his stomping slide-blues tunes. In his “early” days (he was, let's not forget, in his mid-sixties at the time) he performed solo, but now he has acquired a band: a drummer, Dan Magnusson, who looks just like Animal from The Muppets (I know this is said of many drummers, but in this case it is absolutely true: he has the hair, the manic expression and the flailing arms), and a bassist who looks just like John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. In fact, of course, it is John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and last night, between them, they made sweet, dirty music.

The gig was in support of The Connection at St Martin’s, a charity for London’s homeless, which was appropriate, given Steve’s well-told tale of having walked out on his mother and his violent stepfather at the age of 13 and hit the road; he knows whereof he speaks. His set was preceded by a short, moving film about the charity’s work (a man separated from his wife, “ran out of sofas”, and ended up on the streets; really, it could happen to anyone). Then it was down to business.

I was a bit disappointed, having seen Seasick Steve at Latitude festival a few years ago, that he didn’t spend much time talking; he really is a terrific raconteur. But maybe he figures that we’ve all heard his stories by now. Anyway, it’s just a minor quibble, because this was gripping stuff, from the delicate acoustic opener “Treasures” to the churning, pumping “Never Go West”. There’s something about the sound of a slide guitar that quickens the blood, gets the heart pumping, pings the synapses; it's visceral. Seasick Steve’s playing is on a continuum that runs from Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to George Thorogood to the White Stripes (with whose Jack White he has recently worked), and although he doesn’t quite have the technical virtuosity of Jimmy or Jack, when he gets into a groove he’s devilishly, hypnotically good.

Jones, meanwhile, looked thoroughly in his element, plunking away on bass, or occasionally plinking a mandolin or a banjo; he’s not a show-off bassist - you probably wouldn’t have known it was him if you’d had your eyes closed - but there was something lean and powerful about the economy of his playing that kept the sound pinned down. He was the calm centre.

Most of the material came from Seasick Steve’s new album, You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks, which is a continuation of his blues thing with a bit of folky-country stuff thrown in. It was gritty, it was at times exhilaratingly alive, it was loose and it was louche. And on the way out, the charity buckets were filling up nicely. Result.

Watch the video for "Don't Know Why She Love Me But She Do"

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