Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 944: Seasick Steve

I am in the middle of a perfect storm of professional and personal demands on my time. I call such times the Wormhole Effect. It is like being in the gravitational well of a wormhole. The pressure feels overwhelming but the only way out is through the centre of it. A stolen interlude with a bit of music will help make sure I get to the other side intact.

Disc 944 is….Man From Another Time
Artist: Seasick Steve

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover? Seasick Steve himself aka Steve Wold (or Leach, depending on who you believe), looking rather contented with himself here at the tender age of 70 (or 60, depending on who you believe).

How I Came To Know It: A few years ago the HIFI channel gave a free preview to try to convince viewers to sign up. This was back when the HIFI channel was actually about music – nowadays they just air a bunch of random crap – and I taped a whole slew of episodes of “Late Night…with Jools Holland.” Jools brought on all kinds of cool musical acts and one of them was Seasick Steve. I bought this album because two of the songs were featured on the Jools Holland episode I watched. I never signed up for HIFI though, nor have I ever regretted it.

How It Stacks Up:  Seasick Steve has eight studio albums, but I only have two of them. Of those two, “Man From Another Time” is my favourite so…#1!

Ratings: 3 stars

Music has many currencies, but authenticity is the most precious of all. Seasick Steve’s career has always traded on authenticity, and he displays his deep and abiding love of boogie woogie and blues on “Man From Another Time” that feels natural and carefree. Is it really natural, though? There is an alternative narrative about Seasick Steve – which reveals him as a career session musician who reinvented himself with a created backstory as a traveling bluesman.

Fortunately, here on Creative Maelstrom I could care less. If the music sounds authentic, that is authentic enough for me. Just sing it like you mean it, and be true to the moment when you’re performing. By this test, “Man From Another Time” delivers.

The album opens with “Diddley Bo” which was the first song I saw Steve play live on Jools Holland. It isn’t that this song is particularly amazing, it is just a basic rock-blues riff with a bit of drums in the background and the vocals are forgettable and a bit kitschy. But you forgive all of this, because the entire song is played on a board with a single guitar string nailed to it, played (without frets) by Steve with a slide. He throws that slide down with what can best be described as precise abandon, never missing a note. It should be just about the music but I’m sorry, that’s just too damned cool.

Many of Seasick Steve’s other songs are played on guitars (or guitar like objects) with only three or four strings that he’s tuned to overcome the shortcoming. Proof that once you can bar chord you can slide up and down most anything and play some version of the blues. Sure it’s a bit of excess showmanship, but it’s also a lot of fun, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that Seasick Steve is an accomplished guitar player. He’s doing the musical equivalent of tying one hand behind his back and still sounds great.

The themes of the music are about workin’ hard and travelin’ free. Seasick Steve sings about his John Deere tractor, being grateful for having a job (which he notes, is performing for us), and how to pick a good direction when travelling.

My favourite song on the album is on this latter topic. “Never Go West” is a gritty southern rock blues number, with an infectious riff and a cautionary tale of life on the road for the down and out. Seasick Steve’s voice is at its gravelly best, drawing you in as he reminds you to “never whisper when you know it’s time to shout.”

Never Go West” is book ended on the record by two quieter numbers that showcase Seasick Steve’s slowhand. On both “Just Because I Can” and “Dark” Seasick Steve still sounds good even though he smooths out his vocal delivery into something mid-way between Merle Haggard and Eddie Vedder.

For the most part, the record features basic vocals that do a good job of serving their working class themes. The title track is a song about realizing you’ve become the old guy in the room and Steve does it in a way that pokes a little fun at himself without invoking any false pity that usually comes when a middle aged guy complains about getting old.

Other times the lyrics feel a bit forced. On “That’s All” he sings “now freedom for most/is just a word…like toast.” It is a painfully forced rhyme made worse by the delay before he goes there.

But this record is not about lyrics anyway, it is a record about feel. The guitar riffs are steeped in the blues and gorgeously played and the songs have a simple timeless feel despite being new creations.

The record ends with a ten minute track which is a combination of a rambling and forgettable track called “Seasick Boogie” I could’ve lived without, married to a cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The latter is a duet with Amy La Vere. It is a solid enough cover (it’s hard to go wrong with that song), but there is no value in putting it on the same track as the other song.

On balance, “Man From Another Time” is a laid back easy listen that displays the right combination of musicianship, grit and humour. The record doesn’t forge a lot of new ground, but it walks well-worn roads with an easy gait that’s hard not to like.

Best tracks: The Banjo Song, Man From Another Time, Just Because I Can, Never Go West, Dark

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