A gimmick? A farce? Call Seasick Steve’s hobo shtick what you will, but when did we start demanding such a level of individual authenticity from performers? Sure songwriters elicit appeal because we feel like we can enter some sort of direct dialogue with them. However, somewhere along the way the popular consensus seemed to decide that songwriters ought to show us themselves as factual entities – to somehow give us an exact or true version of themselves. But, in addition to the basic impossibility of ever getting someone ‘as they really are’ (we’re all going to somewhat alter the picture of the artist for our own utility anyway); storytelling and its close alibi, fiction, is one of the arts’ most appealing assets and a proven way to authentically relate to another.
Creativity very often involves putting the whole self into the creation, assimilating the self with the created work so that the two operate simultaneously and inextricably. So when I hear people saying “Seasick Steve? I just don’t believe him – maybe he was homeless, but he couldn’t he afford some better clothes by now?”, well I think they’re missing the point. Despite the fact that he probably feels quite comfortable playing a gnarled out 3-string guitar, wearing a scraggly sleeveless shirt and donning that same well-worn John Deere cap, it’s also not really going to match his aesthetic if he waltzes on stage in a tuxedo playing a Santana model PRS.
There’s the rant, now to the justification.
Sunday evening at Bluesfest, Seasick Steve played one of the best, most furiously alive, unapologetically ramshackle and genuinely enthralling rock shows that contemporary music is likely to offer.
Seasick Steve is a junkyard angel. The more ridiculous the instruments he was holding became (is that a hockey stick fixed to a bottle of bourbon with a fishing line?) the more the whole thing made sense and you just couldn’t turn your head away. Whatever the ‘real deal’ might be (and lets keep in mind that it doesn’t mean that the person on stage is under oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but), he is it people. Fuck me, it was an exciting show. There are plenty of musicians in their 60s still getting around the place, and while I am not denying their ability to still make contact with an audience, a lot of them are well beyond their ‘edge’. Seasick Steve, however, is virility in all its erected glory! Yes, creepy old man connotations are welcome. And, on that point, when he selected a young woman from the crowd to sit on stage while he fixed his gaze upon her and sang an earnest love serenade, maybe some were a bit dubious as to whether he’d be able to contain himself. But the song surmounted the gimmick and his shining self stood firm with integrity.
As he said himself - after telling the story of a man who devoted his life to preparing a stable pension in anticipation of his retirement only to die the day after he finally retired – you gotta live for today. And Steve is an exemplary follower of this gospel. There ain’t no doubt about it, this wine-slugging, boogie-music purveyor with a huge white beard, is living for the one moment he’s blessed to be in – right now!
Seasick Steve knows how to kick out a mean blues boogie jam and his set was plentiful with them. When it was time to boogie like you’d just scored a whole gallon of Port while dumpster-diving, Steve and his band did not hold back. They filled the Crossroads tent with swirling provocations to give the finger to your inhibitions and get grooving.
Now about that band. Steve was accompanied by a phenomenonally boisterous and energetic drummer, who just didn’t have enough drums to hit. In one song he took to sweeping a guitar case with a broom in order to enact the appropriate percussive ambience. Completing the trio, on bass and bits of mandolin & lap steel, was none other than John Paul Jones. JPJ is just about the greatest bass player I’ve ever laid eyes/ears upon. I don’t say that because “he was in Led Zeppelin”. He was (or is?) also in a band called Them Crooked Vultures and something true of his work in both of those bands is his ability to fill out a band’s sound like it ain’t no thing. He does this in a way that, well it’s not that you don’t notice, but he always plays to the song. I’m sure he knows he is good, and he knows he was in Led Zeppelin, which means whenever his name is muttered people get all giddy for reasons they probably don’t quite understand. While he could probably get away with any sort of over the top show-off playing and retain this level of worshipped reverence, he doesn’t give it too much. He doesn’t try to assert his ‘legendary’ presence. JPJ’s exceptional abilities had a lot to do with Led Zeppelin becoming legendary in the first place. He is fastidiously moderate, discretely busy, in such a manner that enables the song to benefit out of sight. His playing provides a boost of consolidated energy that allows the core of the song to take some capricious leaps without much fear of falling.
As well as his major format of expression, which sounds something like Canned Heat erupting with Josh Homme desert sessions haphazadry, Seasick Steve showed that he is no one trick pony (or would one trick doggy might more apt analogue?). Steve’s voice is pretty road-worn endearing and when he brought things back for a down south, busking-for-my-baby style ballad, he proved his song-writing sufficiency.
The set also included a guest appearance from Andrew Stockdale, (along with the rest of Wolfmother, including new recruit ex-The Vines drummer Hamish Rosser, and The Delta Riggs’ Elliot Hammond on mouth organ) for a song that they had all written together during Steve’s stay in Byron. It was a bunch of unruly fun.
However the real set highlights came from last years You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks and the closing ‘Doghouse Boogie’, complete with Steve’s captivating life story. In fact, a captivating story is a quite definitive description for the whole show.
Seasick Steve has the music in him. His music might not be the most original thing you’ve ever heard, but at Bluesfest you learn that (to a certain extent) originality is a ruse. We’re humans and we figured out a few good ways to really talk to one another. In rehashing the tropes of blues, boogie and country/western, Seasick Steve allows us all to get together - right here, right now - and engage in some soulful unity.