Saturday, March 14, 2009

I Started Out With Nothin and i Still Got Most of it Left

In an increasingly anodyne and homogenised world media it is gratifying to find the occasional unconventional artist. In these exceptional cases it is important to be aware of the background of a musician before being able to understand the music and Steve’s ability to connect with people through his music. Steven Gene Wold, commonly known as Seasick Steve once said of his life:

Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don't look for work, and bums are people who don't move and don't work. I've been all three.

Seasick Steve appeals because of both the things he is not and the things he is.
In a youth obsessed music scene he is not by any stretch of the imagination youthful; he will not readily admit his age which is either 57 or 67 depending upon the review one reads. He is not easily fitted into any ready genre, originating from California rather than the American Deep South – this gets in the way of those who try to categorise him as an American bluesman, although Steve prefers to be called "a song and dance man."

Steve is a true character; most of his music is about his early life living rough and doing casual work. He is an accomplished and idiosyncratic musician as shown by his choice of favourite instruments which include

  • The Diddley Bow - it only has one string and is played with a slide (He uses an old screwdriver for this purpose). It consists of a 2 foot long 2x4 wooden plank, with a semi-loose guitar string nailed to it at both ends

  • The Three-String Trance Wonder - This is a normal guitar, but with only three strings.

  • The 'MDM' (Mississippi Drum Machine) - A small wooden box that is stomped upon, providing percussion. It is decorated with a Mississippi license plate ("MC33583"), and a small piece of carpet.

    He has been married to Elizabeth, a Norwegian for 27 years with whom he had five children – they have recently moved from Norway to Norfolk, England. It is, approximately, the couple’s 57th home – a recent heart attack has made him consider living in one place (for a time at least).

    He has a long history of musicianship, learning the guitar at the age of 8. Steve left home at 13 to avoid abuse at the hands of his stepfather, and spent many years living on the streets. In the late Sixties, he ended up in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco at the height of the hippy revolution. He got to know Janis Joplin and would hang out at her house. “I reckon she was the greatest. She would bleed for you,” he says of the legendary rock’n’blues singer. “She turned herself inside out when she played. For me, that’s what I look for in music: people ripping themselves inside out.”

    He later became friends with Kurt Cobain, because he recognised the Nirvana front man as one of the few musicians who understood the blues. “Kurt played Leadbelly songs – there was a serious deal going on there. He was a nice fella.”

    In the nineties he worked as a recording engineer and producer. During this time he worked with Modest Mouse producing several of their releases.

    Steve made his first UK television appearance on Jools Holland's 'Annual Hootenanny' BBC TV show (broadcast on New Year's Eve 2006) where he performed a live rendition of "Dog House Boogie" on the 'Three String Trance Wonder' and the 'Mississippi Drum Machine'. The crowd at that concert was interspersed with both real and faux celebrities who were blown away. After that show his popularity exploded, as he explained in an interview: ‘I can't believe it, all of the sudden I'm like the cat's miaow!’

    He does not affect the trappings of rock-stardom – playing a surprise busking gig at Earl's Court underground station before heading to the Brits, for which he was the oldest ever nominee. He also flouted London Mayor Boris Johnson's alcohol ban on the Tube as swigged from a bottle of whiskey on his way to the ceremony.
    In the near future he is collaborating with indie band The White Stripes and will appear at Bestival 2009.

    I Started Out With Nothin and i Still Got Most of it Left is the third album by Seasick Steve. It was released on the 29 September 2008. It entered the UK album chart at number 9 on 6 October 2008. The record features guest musicians Ruby Turner, Nick Cave and KT Tunstall
    Album Tracks.

    The work is largely autobiographical and given Steve's popularity as a showman, spoken introductions are occasionally included. "This is a song about nothin'," he cheerily drawls before the opening title track.. I include live versions of some of the songs that appear on the album.

    1. Started Out With Nothing

    2. Walking Man

    3. St Louis Slim

    4. Happy Man Ruby Turner is gospel-hollering on the album although KT Tunstall was originally touted.

    5. Prospect Lane

    6. Thunderbird – he lets rip here, one of the better tracks this is a drinking anthem

    7. Fly By Night

    8. Just Like A King (Seasick Steve and Nick Cave) this is effortlessly funky. The solitary star guest, Nick Cave, turns in a brilliantly restrained performance which is alternately brooding, lascivious and hilarious: "I'm a prizefighter baby, when I step inside your ring." Steve invites Nick Cave over to swig bourbon on the porch and the resultant track is a delightful strum-along between two troubadours who've seen quite a bit of the world.

    9. One True This is a song in which Steve relates how he woke up one morning, and found his dog had doggone died, leaving him all alone in a world of hurt. He had a mess of them dead dog blues, so he did what came natural – reached for his old three-string guitar and wrote a song about it. The resulting paean to his late German shepherd, Boss, ("he was my one true friend")

    10. Chiggers offers some hilariously fine advice over what to do if you ever get attacked by a mass of evil blood-sucking bugs (the chiggers of the title) - “I wear my socks up to my knees, they still till make a motel out of me" he sings These relate the experiences of his past life as a teenage vagrant and migrant worker.

    11. My Youth - a beautiful itinerant's lament for his "wasted" life,

    12. Steve closes up shop with a hilarious, meandering yarn about the day he realised that he could never settle down

    Steve has an apparently artless and downhome manner which has struck a chord with UK music fans disenchanted with pop's endless strategising and lack of human warmth.
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