It’s easy to be sucked into the Seasick Steve legend (his real name is Steve Wold). Raised in California, he left home at 14 and began life as a street kid hobo, hopping trains, traveling, working odd jobs, drifting, playing music on street corners, doing whatever it took to survive, until somehow he ended up in Norway in his sixties where he began his late-in-life recording career as a fire-breathing rustic trance blues musician famous for his searing slide work, gruff voice, and a penchant for cigar box guitars and other odd instruments. All of which is true. But there’s a bit more to the story. Wold, aside from seeming like he stepped right out of a Jack London story, has also been a session musician and recording engineer (he worked with Modest Mouse), appeared on BBC television, and even played with John Lee Hooker, so he is not a hobo savant -- he knows exactly what he’s doing. It just took him a long time to find an audience, or perhaps even to know he wanted one. His sound is rough, ragged, and stomping, a bit like North Mississippi trance blues players like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, but he doesn’t do traditional blues songs -- it just sounds like he does. There’s no doubt he understands the heart, soul, and kinetics of country blues, but he’s also a natural songwriter who has lived a few decades and seen a lot of things in the back alleys that have given him a wonderfully urgent and wise perspective on what he’s doing. He’s not a young man. He’s been around. He knows what he’s singing about. You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks, his fifth album, is his best yet, and easily his most considered and polished -- polished being a relative term here because this outing is thankfully still plenty rough and raw. There are a half dozen of Wold's signature roaring slide guitar tracks here, usually accompanied by Dan Magnusson's powerful and inspired drumming, including the delightfully romping “Don’t Know Why She Love Me But She Do,” but there are other tracks here that reveal Wold as something more than just a brilliant side-street blues player. The opening track, “Treasures,” is a thing of stark beauty as Wold looks back at what is truly worth holding in a long life, and it isn’t blues, unless one calls those old Appalachian banjo songs the blues. He sounds like Fred Neil after a two-week bender on another gem called “Whiskey Ballad,” which is more folk than it is anything else. Then he’s back to the banjo again for “Underneath a Blue and Colourless Sky,” a song that Dock Boggs would have cried over, and it’s sad and real and powerful. The set closer, “It’s a Long, Long Way,” is a pure country song, and one can almost imagine what Johnny Cash would have done with it. You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks builds on the loose and raw sound of Wold's earlier records, but it is also an extension of them, pulling in strains of folk and country and adding them to his signature trance blues sound. The result is a powerfully good record that Tom Waits is probably going to play to death if he ever gets ahold of a copy.
© Steve Leggett /TiVo