by Jack Baxter
Throughout history certain individuals have proven themselves memorable as much for their style as their story. One such individual is the inimitable Seasick Steve.
Seasick Steve, or Steven Gene Wold to his mother, is a contemporary American Blues musician famous for his storytelling, unusual instrumentation, itinerant ‘hobo’ lifestyle, incendiary live performances and, of course, his uniquely, roughshod style.
Born in Oakland, California in 1941 his parents separated when Steve was just four years old. This served as rich inspiration for some of his later songwriting. Steve was taught guitar by K.C. Douglas who worked in his father’s garage when Steve was eight years old. K.C. himself was heavily influenced by Tommy Johnson’s Delta Blues characterised by his unusual falsetto and intricate picking style. A young Steve had yet to appreciate his grounding in American Blues. Steve’s mother remarried a couple of years after although he was an abusive man, and eventually drove Steve to run away from home aged just thirteen. Thus began the period of his life when he lived rough, finding work where he could labouring.
Steve eked out a living on the road in Tennessee, Mississippi and generally moved around by hopping freight trains. He was a self styled hobo, constantly moving around looking for work. During this time he continued playing guitar, building on his earlier training and toured and performed with fellow blues musicians in the 1960s. He found occasional employment as a session musician and studio engineer. Steve moved to Norway in 2001, after a stint busking on the metro in Paris. It was here that he finally released his first album with help from Swedish/Norwegian band, ‘The Level Devils’. It was entitled, ‘Cheap’ and Steve was a mere sixty years old when it came out.
He followed ‘Cheap’ with his breakthrough solo effort, 2006’s ‘Dog House Music’ on Bronzerat Records. One month later Seasick Steve found himself on British television on Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve. He performed three songs, one of which was on his infamous, ‘Three String Trance Wonder’- a guitar with only three strings tuned to G, A and B allowing for Blues Slide playing. Almost overnight his popularity soared in the UK, culminating in his winning the 2007 MOBO award for Best Breakthrough Act and appearing at music festivals the same summer, with Glastonbury being a highlight. Steve toured extensively in 2008 and took in festivals in Japan, Australia and Scandinavia. He later signed to Warner Music and released, “I Started Out With Nothing and I Still Got Most of it Left” in September 2008.
His second solo record was a more tightly produced affair and was notable for featuring a number of supporting musicians and singers. In a similar vein to his previous offering, songs told tales of his time living as a hobo and he ended the album with a ten minute plus, spoken word track about a log cabin he and a friend had temporarily called home one eventful autumn years before. His tours throughout the UK in 2008 and 2009 sold out and he played a barn-storming set at the Hammersmith Apollo. In 2011 Steve released his fourth solo-offering, “You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks” which went on to be the second biggest selling blues album of that year in the UK.
Most recently Steve released, “Hubcap Music” on Jack White’s ‘Third Man Records’. The album was named for a four string Morris Minor guitar constructed from two hubcaps and a garden hoe. Steve plays with Jack White and John Paul Jones on the album and has an arguably richer, more polished sound than any of his previous recordings.
Steve continues to record, produce and tour with a new offering in the pipeline later this year. Seasick Steve, we salute you.
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