Seasick Steve

From the King's Head to the Opera House, it's been quite a journey for the hobo bluesman

Seasick Steve Wold’s down-and-dirty hobo shtick has been attracting some flak of late. 

As the American-born bluesman’s astonishing rags-to-riches story continues with a UK top ten placing for I Started Out With Nothin And I Still Got Most Of It Left – the follow-up to 2006’s Dog House Music – rumours abound that Steve isn’t quite all he seems. He’s a well-paid session guitarist, they say. He runs a studio. He’s an investment banker. 

Truth is, virtually nobody knows who or what the grey-bearded, overall-sporting singer/songwriter is, was or where exactly he came from. Even estimates of his age are hazy. Fifty-something? Sixty-something? As he lurches onto the Grand Opera House stage, bent over, twisted and visibly awed by the rapturous reception that greets him, he could certainly have passed for at least that. 

His performance is a highlight of the 2008 Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Sold out weeks in advance and eagerly anticipated by every type of music fan from Spin-reading hipsters to lairy punks and metalheads, this Opera House gig is a far cry from Steve’s first Belfast appearance, supporting Hayseed Dixie at the King’s Head bar in 2005. 

The Open House Festival organisers who booked that show are repeatedly thanked between songs for reinvigorating the musician’s career. Steve had barely survived a heart attack at the time and had all but given up hope on his songs being heard outside the house he shares with his Norwegian wife and a pet dog.

Now signed to Warner Bros and travelling with a drummer, a massive backdrop and a roadie to hand him his beat-up, homemade guitars, Steve’s riotous folk-blues and spiritual singalongs are more capable than ever of converting a cavernous venue into an intimate juke joint.

A particular highlight tonight is the love song 'Walking Man', which he sings to a girl in the front row named Helen, whom he invites on stage to sit beside him. If he wasn’t famous, people might call Steve a dirty old man, but onstage he can pretty much do as he pleases. 

By the end of the show, he only has a sip or two left in his bottle of Southern Comfort. He also sings a duet with the delightful support act, Amy LaVere, whose trio had earlier opened the Belfast show with a set of jazzy Americana.

The electric atmosphere of the concert is spoiled only by the relentless catcalls of a few audience members who seem to regard Steve as some sort of novelty act. 'Go on, ye boy ye!' they shout. 'Show us what you’re made of!'

Such whooping and hollering is de rigueur at blues events, but the line is crossed when a section of the crowd greet Steve’s tale of being beaten by his Vietnam veteran stepfather with cheers and ironic laughter. It's an irksome wrinkle in an otherwise glorious evening. Few might have imagined that one man and his drummer could rock the Opera House so thoroughly. Next stop the Odyssey.

Andrew Johnston