Blues rock CD review: Seasick Steve, I Started Out With Nothin' and I Still Got Most Of It Left

(Warner Bros)

On YouTube, you can find the 2006 performance from Later ... that turned "Seasick" Steve Wold from a blues curio into an overnight star. It is a fantastic piece of television, complete with cut-away shots of awestruck stars craning for a better look. Virtually every viewer's comment is a gushing torrent of praise. Someone called StefanPriceUK, a fan of "Clapton and Gary Moore" sounds a sour note - "this had no lead guitar, boring" - but he's shouted down by voices hymning Wold's gritty authenticity: "You numpty bastard ... blues is all about emotion and Seasick Steve has tons of it."

Without wishing to detract from the unarguable brilliance of his live performances, said gritty authenticity forms a vast part of Wold's appeal. His story chimes with a certain kind of British music fan's romantic, Cormac McCarthyesque notion of a mythic lost America. Here is a bona fide grizzled former hobo who drinks wine from the bottle during interviews, plays a guitar with three strings, and is happy to take journalists around the Memphis train yards where he hopped freights 40 years ago, the latter presumably making for livelier copy than his current domicile in Norfolk, East Anglia. If there's occasionally a sense that he and journalists are colluding to play up the image a bit - you tend to hear a lot more about "the dusty tracks he once stalked like a ghost", as one writer put it, than his time as producer for bookish American indie band Modest Mouse - it's easy to overlook when you're buoyed by the visceral, unvarnished power of his music.

The question that stalks I Started Out With Nothing ... is how much of that visceral, unvarnished power will remain under the auspices of a major record label. The songs still largely draw on Wold's former life as a vagrant - Walking Man, on which he offers to "stash my sleeping roll under your bed", deals with a topic that might technically be termed hobo sexuality - but it's an album made under vastly different circumstances to its predecessor.

That album, Dog House Blues, was apparently recorded direct to one track in Wold's kitchen using a 1930s microphone. I Started Out With Nothing ... was recorded in a plush residential studio owned by former Darkness guitarist Dan Hawkins. Can your music still carry the dusty tang of the trainyard when it comes complete with contributions from Ruby Murray, backing vocalist by appointment to Mick Jagger, Steve Winwood and Newcastle's own boxcar-hopping vagabond minstrel Bryan Ferry?

The opener, the album's title track, suggests not. With its smooth guitars and surfeit of female vocals, it sounds like something designed with local radio - or indeed our old pal StefanPriceUK - in mind: a depressingly neutered take on Wold's sound. But it seems to exist solely as bait for the less adventurous listener: you can decry the cynicism, but you can't help being delighted when the album swiftly rectifies itself. The solitary star guest, Nick Cave, turns in a brilliantly restrained performance on Just Like a King, which is alternately brooding, lascivious and hilarious: "I'm a prizefighter baby, when I step inside your ring." There are moments when the pace lets up to reveal a softer tone to Wold's voice - Happy Man is a particularly lovely example - but the most immediate excitement is generated when he lets rip, as on Thunderbird or the effortlessly funky St Louis Slim, a song in which the protagonist manages to lose a leg in the first line. Chiggers, a title that sounds like a South African-accented tribute to Liverpool's most irrepressible TV presenter but turns out to refer to an insect, is equally thrilling, decorated with ferocious slide guitar. It is most emphatically not Chiggers Plays Pop.

If you were minded to pose awkward questions, you might ask precisely how many albums of hobo-themed blues rock a man needs. It's an issue Wold himself has addressed, calling his current fame "a job for a little while". But he may also have an answer, in the shape of the closing My Youth. A desolate mediation on ageing, it's the best thing here, and there's not a hint of the dusty tracks about it. "I've still got my memories," he sings, but it's a song that suggests Seasick Steve's appeal might last even when the public tire of hearing about them.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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