AU Presents: Seasick Steve

From the Dog Shed to the Opera House, AU speaks to music’s best loved hobo song-and-dance man

Seasick Steve is a storyteller. Right from the get-go, his natural mode of talking blends fact, fiction, exaggerations, fibs, half-truths and brutal honesty. A simple question can result in a rather lengthy explanation, so it’s better to sit back, undo your belt buckle, and get comfortable.

'Belfast? One of my favourite places. For me, probably the reason I’m playing music is because of Belfast,' he begins, without any prompting. 'Open House [Festival], that’s what it was about. The first one I went to was when I played with Hayseed Dixie… before that, I was supposed to come over with a little band I had, but I had a heart attack.'

This last line is casually thrown out, in the way in which one might mention stubbing a toe on the bathroom floor. Breathlessly he continues, 'And then I thought I was going to be alright, but then I didn’t feel alright and I cancelled all my shows. And the people at Open House kept calling me and saying, ‘Why don’t you come over by yourself?’ and I said, ‘Nah I don’t really want to do that…’ But they kept calling me, and they’d made quite a big deal about me coming over. They were going to show this hobo film, and they showed me the programme which had this big picture of me in the middle, and my wife said 'Why don’t you try to do one gig on your own?' So I went over there and I played, and I had a good time, and they treated me real nice, and that’s what made me think that maybe I could just go out and keep playing. So if I hadn’t done that gig in Belfast, I don’t think I’d be playing now.'

In a world of pretenders, Seasick Steve can stand proud as that ever-elusive quarry; The Real Deal. Like an unpolished diamond, Steve (real name Steve Wold) has been wowing audiences with his stripped down charm, beguiling storytelling persona, and a musical style that mixes blues, country, folk, and everything in-between, to create something that punches you in the gut and makes you ask for more.

'I started playing the guitar when I was eight, a long time ago. I hadn’t been getting anywhere with it up until a few years ago. I mean, I played, but I’ve had lots of normal jobs and stuff. I’ve raised five children in the last 35 years, so I’ve had to do everything I could just to make a living, just to take care of my kids. So a lot of times there wasn’t much music going on, I can tell you that!'

This is a life lived away from the glamorous showbiz lifestyle some musicians aspire to, trading Seasick Stevesunglasses and skinny jeans for dungarees, scuffed work-boots, and a hard work ethic.

'I did carpentry work, construction kind of stuff, sold shoes. I’ve been a short order cook, drove an ambulance. I’ve done all kinds of things, you know? But I started recording bands in the Nineties, and that kind of kept me in it, being an engineer. But I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear me play. I played a few gigs, and people started liking what I did! I hadn’t played on my own for many, many years… I just didn’t think anyone was interested in me.'

One of those bands that Steve recorded was Modest Mouse, producing This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, and playing on some of their early releases. Whilst it might seem strange to imagine a bearded hobo collaborating with one of America’s best-loved indie bands, it’s perfectly in keeping with Steve’s personality that he can move from straight-up blues and country, and then play indie-rock without flinching. After all, in true hobo style, he never seems to settle in one place for too long.

After building up a following with his own music, and cementing his love affair with Belfast, an appearance on Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny took his music to an audience that he would never have expected to reach.

'After I played the Jools Holland show, I was very surprised how much people liked it! And now it’s gone so crazy, I feel like I’m in a dream. I might wake up and find out it’s all been one big joke.'

Luckily for Steve, he needn’t be too worried about waking up just yet. There’s something about his performance style that really strikes a chord with audiences. Irrespective of background, age, or musical preference, there’s something about Seasick Steve that people connect with. Typically, he has an explanation.

'I just go out there and play like when I used to play on the streets. I think there’s a lot of performers who never played on the streets. There’s a lot of people who played on the streets, and they never made it off the streets, and so when you see someone playing there, you might not pay too much attention, maybe give them some money. I just took that whole thing and put it up on the stage. A lot of bands who never played on the streets, they don’t have the same ability to strike up a rapport with the audience. And for me, if you don’t make no rapport with the people on the street, you don’t get no money. If you don’t make a racket, then you don’t get no money. And then you don’t eat. So there’s a little survival thing going on…'

Whilst it’s difficult to imagine someone describing themselves as ‘surviving’ and then playing the Grand Opera House in Belfast, that’s precisely what Steve is doing, as he performs there as part of this year’s Belfast Festival. Although it might seem strange for a performer of Steve’s style to be playing in such grand confines, his natural ability to build a relationship with an audience will surely keep him in good stead. After all, that’s just what he does.

'Before I play, I get a little bit crazy. It’s like a switch goes on in my brain. I have all these plans about what I’m gonna play, and the minute I walk out, everything’s shot away. I lose it a little bit in my brain. It’s not Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but you know. Sometimes I’m conscious of it, so I try to keep my brain clear. Then I take 10 steps towards the stage, and the brain is gone!'

And the Seasick Steve repertoire is expanding, with his new album I Started Out With Nothin’ And I Still Got Most Of It Left due for release ahead of his Belfast date.

Seasick Steve'I feel like I’m playing country music. I know I’ve got deep blues influences and all that, but I don’t really feel like I’m playing the blues, I just feel like I’m playing… I guess it sounds kind of primitive. I’m playing it and I think, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe anyone listens to this kind of stuff.’ There’s blues and country and folk, and it all gets messed up in a gigantic train wreck.'

Certainly, the album lurches from genre to genre, but it’s weighted down by the presence of Steve at the heart of it all, playing some scorching guitar, pulling soul out of the blues, or telling stories between the songs. At times, the album feels like a performance, with Steve in the room with you, doing everything he can to preserve your attention.

'I wanted it to have a real warm sound, so we recorded it the old fashioned way. And you know, not many people are doing it that way anymore, so I guess that helps it to stand out. Coming after the Dog House Music record [released in 2006], which had been well received, I wanted to try something a little different, and not just do more of the same.'

Indeed, whilst Dog House Music had been recorded with only minimal assistance (there’s a bit of percussion at one point), I Started Out With Nothing, And I’ve Still Got Most Of It Left relies more upon a full band sound. Grinderman appear on one song to get caught up in the proceedings, but it’s that captivating presence that comes so naturally to Seasick Steve that keeps you involved. To paraphrase a Northern Irish wise man, these songs are good, but it’s the way he tells them.

'It’s a good thing I did that gig,” he muses, returning to the subject of his Belfast Open House festival performance, 'because right after that I went home and made that Dog House Music record. Right before that when I hadn’t felt so good, I was pretty sure I was quittin’. So I have a real warm spot for the place, you know?' 

Seasick Steve plays the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on October 27 as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, and the Royal Hosital Kilmainham, Dublin on October 29.

Steven Rainey

This review is reproduced in association with AU magazine and I ♥