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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
  SEASICK STEVE The Borderline, London, March 25th, 2007
To be honest I wasn’t sure that going to see Seasick Steve, what seemed like only a few hours after walking the plank at a rumbustious Pirate Party, was necessarily a good idea. And as we groped our way down the narrow companionway into the rolling and pitching hold that doubles as the Borderline, my deepest fears were confirmed. The crowd is heaving – the gig sold out weeks ago. It’s unseasonably hot – and I’m beginning to regret taking the dawn watch. “Why do they call you Seasick Steve, Steve?” someone asked from the audience later. “Because I get sick on boats” was the laconic drawled answer. He ought to try standing where I am. Seasick Steve
Actually he does, making his way to the stage slowly through the dense crowd, playing sharp jarring riffs with his slide guitar, accepting the smiles and shoulder pats that accompany his deliberate process. Steve’s a hero – he jumped into the broad gaze of the British public when he upstaged a clutch of top-notch hipsters on Jools Holland’s New Year TV show (Lilly Allen, Amy Winehouse, Paul Weller etc.), but he’s also had some long-standing patronage from radio greats Charlie Gillet, Andy Kershaw and Joe Cushley, who’s partly responsible for this short (sold out) tour and who’s sweating his way through roadie duty. Maybe Joe and Co know more about Steve than I do, because I have to say he’s a bit of a difficult cove to track down. He may have been born in 1950 – he left his California home at the age of 14, as a result, as he tells us in a moving narrative in the middle of his last song, of abuse from his step-father, a Korean War Veteran (‘Dog house boogie’). He took to the road and rails of America, living the life of a hobo, working, travelling and drinking; working, travelling and drinking.
Seasick But at some point he turned his back on this life: he lived in Europe (allegedly in the lovely Rive Gauche of your delicious Paris, Serge) and returned to the USA to set up a studio, Moon Music, in Olympia, Washington, where he gained a reputation for recording some of the major bands in the Northwest, including Modest Mouse with whom he also played. He turned his back on that in 2000 - "I'm finished with America. I'm 50 years old now, and I've been watching greed play the main stage since I was a teenager. I just can't stand it any more" - he told a local newspaper, and instead made a home with his Norwegian wife in, errr… Norway. And it’s from there that he’s been rediscovered, or perhaps reinvented, as Seasick Steve, hobo bluesman – with a cracking album Dog House Music (which at the time of writing ranks 153 in Amazon’s UK sales list) and a string of UK gigs (including the predictable Glastonbury) lasting through to the Fall.
Whatever the truth of his history, it’s the engaging Seasick Steve the hobo who takes the stage and in an hour or so has us riding the blind through the southern states of the USA. He transports us to the drunk tanks of Memphis, has us drinking Thunderbird Wine and eating SpaghettiOs under a thousand stars, and shares with us the darker secrets of drinking Canned Heat. “The fellow that taught me the guitar, he used to run round with Tommy Johnson – now, he used to love drinking that Canned Heat” (he was taught to play the guitar by Mississippi bluesman K C Douglas, who’d moved to California chasing work at the end of the Second War). “Me, I only drank it once and it took me three or four days ‘fore I could see straight…”. He does still like a drink, ‘though – he takes a couple of pulls from a small bottle of Jack but then decides better of it and uses it instead to clean the neck of his guitar with a pair of red Seasick Steve underpants (“I don’t know how many of these I signed last night”).
And it’s true to say that his guitars are a bit of a mess – a bashed-up acoustic that you can see daylight through (“Man, this guitar’s shit”), a one stringed diddly-bo made for him by Clarksdale’s Super Chickan (“well I fooled around with it a bit and put the baked bean can on at the end”) and the famous 3-stringed Trance Wonder guitar, bought from his friend Sherman Cooper in Cosmo Mississippi for $75 (“we know about you Sherman”).
Rough they may be but there’s some cute electronics here because the sound old Seasick gets from these written-off instruments is simply sensational. He plays mainly in the old Mississippi style, just about keeping to a twelve-bar structure, moaning, hollering and singing with a deeply resonant voice. There’s nothing tricky about the guitar playing (“here you are – I’ll do it slowly for all the guitar boys in the audience) but it has a relentless intensity, driven on by his Mississippi Drum Machine, an amplified wooden box at his feet. He sounds as good as the real thing – “I’m not a blues singer, I’m a song and dance man” he pleads, and of course that puts him right in the tradition of Charley Patton or Tommy Johnson (Canned Heat notwithstanding) who with all their performing antics would have been shocked to see the dry reverence in which they’re sometimes held today. And while Steve is obviously enjoying his moment of celebrity – “they done got me a myspace – man, I’ve got so many friends and I ain’t never met one of them…” he’s transparently clear that he’s going to make just as much money from it as he can - “it’s my last shot man, buy the record, feed the hobo”. I recommend that you do just that. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)



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