Seasick Steve challenges your cynicism, but raises it all the same.
Before the concert, pint in hand, pontificating with friends, it’s hard to separate the man from the act, the shade from the shtick. The downhome drawl, the dungarees, the hobo stories, the homemade instruments, the sifted grit and the safe platitudes.
Where does the real Steve end and this folk juggernaut begin? Who do the audience want to see and what do they really want?
Milling about the local bars with the beards, the bellies and the seas of checked shirts there are the legions who’ve bought Steve. To them Seasick Steve is the late aged payoff, the apotheosis of struggle, pain, compassion and compromise that all life affords. In him they find themselves and it spills over mawkish and cloying everywhere music is supposed to be. The businessmen dressing down, the matching t-shirt couples, the roots acoustic aficionados; for someone presenting authenticity and genuine soul music, the fruits of this late blooming tree are a weird assemblage of shallow if earnest weekenders. Apologists where there should be activists, lifestyles where there should be lives, and a few good people along for the show all the same.
It’s hardly the soundtrack to rebellion, but the deification of this man I once watched playing a bar in Spitalfields is odd. Is that my Seasick Steve? The guy that I saw way back when? His success is great and if you haven’t seen the show recently it’s moved on and up. His long time friend and drummer Dan Magnusson is playing better than ever, in many places stealing the show. The addition of violin/multinstrumentalist Georgina Leach to the party is a stellar move. Both compatriots shift the focus, widen the sound and add variety to the set. It kills.
Seasick Steve’s concerts are a slow build, they start intimate, grow in stature as drums pound and violins chorus, lifting a song high into the air carrying us all with it. Blues based stompers saw out of fuzzed guitars, droney slides remind us of John Lee Hooker, stories of good times with bad booze, railway musings, and moment of love mingle with something aphasic and primally vital.
As with all good music it is transformative. Years and inhibitions fall away as breasts swell, pants are adjusted, and swivelling eyes apprise the raunchiest grooves in the juiciest dancers.
Skipping the support act who were by all account very good, we took our respective seats in the upper circle reserved for journalists and friends, missing the atmosphere of the general admission crowd but offering a grand vantage point of the stage where what we missed in terms of whites-of-the-eyes presence, we gained in coverage.
Seasick Steve brought us into his world, and while I never felt the need to change my wardrobe or grow extravagant facial hair, I was there. The man can hold a crowd in the palm of his hand and then surprise them. While the expected favourites of doghouse blues and others raged strongly, it was the final cover of ‘Gentle on My Mind’ that blew us away. The mournful country classic took on a deeper life as the troubadour informed us that this song was the one that perhaps summed up his existence at a certain point of his life, perhaps still does.
The charm of Seasick Steve is that, try as we might, and cynical as we are (he is in many ways one cheesy old dude) there is an outside chance that his hobo cabaret comes from a place and time when his daily bread depended on it. His performance may not connect necessarily with the truth of his life, but he delivers it and his appreciation with earnest thanks. His is doing what he loves and when he welcomes you (and a few thousand others) into the groove it’s because he wants you to have a good time. Whether that is good business or more doesn’t really matter.
The autumn couple next to me smiled as they squeezed my hand, as final chords rang into applause and ovation rose to meet occasion. I walked out in the night as people beamed and wished each other well. People were satisfied they’d had a good time and held little concern whether Steve’s night was good or bad. If music is a spiritual remedy then the witch doctor is in the house.
Bring it on
Right on time
Baby please don’t go
In peaceful dreams
Keep on keeping on
Gentle on my mind
Dog House boogie
Photo: Carl Byron Batson. Not to be reproduced without express prior permission.
Seasick Steve played the Eventim Apollo, London. April 14th 2015.