Friday, May 22, 2015

Back in the doghouse: Seasick Steve at Le Bataclan, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2015
Some years ago, there was a brief flurry of amusement about Big Daddy, a band that produced ‘50s doo-wop versions of contemporary songs like Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark under the pretence that they were an actual band from the late 1950s, captured during a USO tour of south-east Asia to be rescued in the 1980s to make “old versions of new songs”.

Nobody, for one moment, was taken in by the creaky plot, but that didn't interfere with the band's brief season of patronage by metropolitan musos in Britain.

A similarly arbitrary hipster fad could be attributed to Steve Wold - aka Seasick Steve, he of the colourful backstory and unlikely, late-in-life fame which came out of bemusing the pants off festival-goers with his itinerant blues traveller act.

While Wold's initial flourish of fame may have come from the semi-ironic appreciation of wigged-out Glasto punters (those who turn up for the Foo Fighters and end up digging Dolly Parton), his subsequent progress has rightfully installed him in the spectrum of performers dutifully interpreting the music of the Mississippi Delta in their own sweet way.

Of course there is some degree of caricature in Wold's stage persona: the John Deare tractor cap, the improvised guitars and a never-far bottle of something to swig from does suggest schtick to frame the whole hillbillyness of it all.

But with seven albums since 2004 and countless more festival appearances under his belt, you'd have thought the novelty would have worn off. It hasn't.

You only have to stroll down Beale Street in Memphis to Handy Park to see pretty much the same concept being relayed throughout every authentic hour of the day of that living museum of the Delta blues.

And while Memphis affords tourists a genuinely engaging nod back to Beale's origins, Wold's version of the blues traveller is increasingly playing a vital role in keeping this chapel of Americana alive.

It's hard not to mention BB King at this point. He may have become ever-more cabaret towards the end, but his status as the last of the original bluesmen, with the dirt of Southern cotton fields still beneath their fingernails, placed him at the apex of a movement keeping this vital piece of American culture alive. Clapton, Buddy Guy, Tedeschi and Trucks, the mighty Popa Chubby, and Wold are its remaining custodians, authentic patricians of blues heritage and guardians of its legacy in equal measure.

If there’s one misunderstanding about blues music, it’s that it is maudlin. True, distress of the human condition has always been a lyrical mainstay of the blues, but much of that was tongue-in-cheek. Moreover, the blues is at its most joyful when expressed with the warmth and richness that Seasick Steve applied last night at Le Bataclan, spending much of the evening grinning as widely as most of the vocal Parisian audience (“we love you Sea-sick!” hollered one beer-soaked punter, failing to see the irony of such nautical malady).

Accompanied by the thunderous drummer Dan Magnusson, Wold rattled through the 13-song, 90-minute set, getting the crowd stomping furiously from the get-go with My Donny, the bottleneck blues workout that did so much to endear him to festival crowds to begin with, before easing into Bring It On, which doffs a trucker cap to Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks (and for a former hobo, the choice of Ramble On, amongst an assortment of Led Zeppelin songs, seemed eminently appropriate to warm up the yappy crowd). Indeed, Wold makes it easy to see how the hypnotic rhythms of the Mississippi Delta had such an effect on the British Blues movement and the likes of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham.

Over the Tennessee chugging, Wold gets to talk about the places he has drifted from and to: Summertime Boy references his own West Coast history (at one time living under the roof of abusive father in Oakland) as he painted an idyllic picture of surfing off Californian beaches, and the drive north on PCH that I can personally vouch is one of the greatest, life-affirming experiences one can have. Barracuda ’68, much later in the set, casts the same effect, a seemingly effortless stomper for the ultimate road trip soundtrack.

With Walking Man, Wold strays into Bono territory by pulling a blonde from the crowd in order "to sing you a love song”. It is indeed a beautiful blues ballad, evoking a southern porch with fireflies jigging about. The warmth and tenderness of both Wold's vocal and his slide guitar never surrendered to schmaltz.

The pace is cranked back up again with Roy’s Gang, on which Wold breaks out a guitar made from a washboard and a banjo neck and played with a thimble. At this point you might question whether this is too much humility, but the earthy grind that Wold and Magnusson concoct is every bit as inventive as Jimmy Page and his violin bow, or Hendrix playing with his teeth.

© Simon Poulter 2015
With the audience now frugging in unison, Wold piles into the standard Baby, Please Don’t Go (popularised by Big Joe Wiliams, immortablised by Van Morrison’s Them), which takes the crowd along with its infectious repetition.

“Play the blues Steve!” shouts someone in a crowd noticeable for the number of plaid shirts and John Deare tractor caps. "I ain't playin' no blues, man, I'm a hillbilly!” is the response, as Wold grinds into Keep On Keepin’ On, which says everything you’ll ever need to know about Seasick Steve and his professional ethos.

After the briefest of breaks, Wold re-emerges on his own to cover John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind, a countrified ballad about life on the road, and again, another example of Wold’s delightful balance of chugging blues and a gentler take on the genre.

We end with another Seasick Steve signature, Dog House Boogie, another rousing, growling, floor-thumper that provides a consolidating demonstration of why, playing this old, weather-worn, venerable form of music, live audiences were so bowled over by Wold to begin with.

It wasn’t about his sorry tale of life on the road, of seeking out a living and sleeping in hedgrerows, it was the fact that with a guitar made out of the barest of components, Seasick Steve was able to - and continues to - demonstrate that music, proper music, isn’t created on a computer, or in a TV studio - but by soul. Simply wonderful.

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