Album review: Seasick Steve, You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

Well-worn sentiment and scrapheap guitar in hand, Seasick Steve continues to entertain as a grand old bluesman should

• Ageless: Seasick Steve is still marching on despite his years

Seasick Steve: You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks ***

Play It Again Sam, 11.99

IF YOU'RE looking for a message in your music, Seasick Steve is maybe not the first artist who would spring to mind. This modest wandering bluesman, for whom commercial success – and even the opportunity to record an album in the first place – has come late in life, seems like a humble soul, less likely to get on his soapbox than to use said box for junkyard percussion.

Hide Ad

But you could certainly do worse than pay some heed to the simple, homespun wisdom of his songs, with their themes of getting old, getting your house in order and investing where it counts, in love, family, friends and life experience, however diffidently it is offered.

"You probably won't take no advice from me," he demurs at the end of his latest album. "I never took none myself, you see."

His attitude is summed up by the album title, which also provides him with his get-out clause. Here I am, doing what I do. Stop by and listen, or don't, it's all one to me. Given that Steve was a drifter for many years, and that he surely had no anticipation of a career as a musician – though he did make a living as a studio engineer for a time – the fact that anyone is listening now, let alone in such considerable numbers, is a cause for wonder.

He has new cause to pinch himself this time around. Since being "discovered" a few years back, Steve has always played with a drummer, sometimes one of his sons, but currently a silver-haired flailer called Dan Magnusson who would give Animal from The Muppets a run for his crazy money. But now he is working with a bassist too – who just happens to be bass behemoth John Paul Jones, continuing to get his kicks in the absence of a Led Zeppelin reunion by lending his services to friends and associates such as Josh Homme and Dave Grohl, Old Crow Medicine Show and now this old dog.

The use of such a mighty rhythm section lends epic heft to the title track, which captures Steve's trademark gutter punk rawness but also transforms its hangdog blues into a full-blooded rock song. Steve steps up to the plate with a lusty vocal, reminiscent in its relish of none other than Sir Tom Jones.

He delivers his own less brazenly virile version of sexy on Burnin' Up, cutting to the chase of this whole unrequited love thang with his matter-of-fact observation that "when you got the love on somebody and you ain't sure they got the love back on you, that's a hard thing y'all", then howling at his fate on efficient electric blues blowout Back In The Doghouse.

Hide Ad

Don't Know Why She Love Me But She Do is as immediate and accessible as its title, with Magnusson kicking up some hell on the offbeat, while Steve conjures some visceral slide blues from his Cigar Box Guitar, one of a burgeoning collection of customised scrapyard axes he owns. Doubtless he could afford some gleaming new guitars these days, but that's just not the spirit.

Instead, the spirit is more likely to be bourbon. Whiskey Ballad, a basic, breezy ditty written by his son Paul Martin Wold, is his barfly version of Don't Worry Be Happy, while on Party he looks forward to celebrating with "all my lost friends" in the juke joint in the sky.

Hide Ad

However, he manages just fine playing on his own, pledging his non-fancy love –"won't be no bed of roses but there'll be a bed" – on non-fancy bare bluegrass number Underneath A Blue And Cloudless Sky and achieving a tangible intimacy on Have Mercy On The Lonely, which sounds like he's playing in the corner of the room.

This is one of several songs where Steve gently pushes his favourite topic, which he sums up thus: "rather be poor and have my honey than own the banks with all the money".

He returns several times, like a musical Book of Proverbs, to this evergreen theme of emotional versus material wealth, stirring up a one-man squall of admonition on What A Way To Go, kicking cautionary ass on Days Gone and chastising those who fearfully guard ephemeral worldly goods on the Johnny Cash-like Treasures. In times of obscene corporate and private greed, you can't really argue with the old codger.

He delivers one last shot of forelock-tugging Appalachian-style sagacity on the closing Long Long Way, with the Lyndhurst Rabble Choir as his ragged Greek chorus. Appreciative of his audience to the end, he offers "thanks for taking time to listen to an old man". We would be foolish not to.