Seasick Steve, Cambridge Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 9th November 2018

It’s a packed out Corn Exchange for the first night of Seasick Steve’s first UK tour since 2015. Much has changed since his famous Hootenanny breakthrough moment, not least that the audience is now predominantly middle-aged and male. The accrual of this particular loyal army of fans is, perhaps, one of the stranger parts of the Seasick Steve experience – especially considering that he first sailed into town on the same wave that had brought us the White Stripes and the whole Jack White (with whom Seasick Steve has recorded) ethos of back to musical basics. It is what it is though, and perhaps not so surprising as tales of the hoboing life have given way to songs about cars, women in the sunshine and…tractors. The back to basics ethos is still firmly in place as the night would see a series of unlikely and homemade instruments, mostly variations on the cigar-box guitar, but there’s also been a further evolution of his sound, most noticeably on the new album ‘Can U Cook?‘.

It’s the full rock show experience as Steve takes the stage with his long time drummer Dan Magnusson and guitarist Luther Dickenson – it’s a stage that is set with Steve’s usual brought from home chairs, a variety of instruments and vintage speakers and Steve is resplendent in his accustomed stage outfit of plaid shirt and patched to the hilt jeans. However, there are hints of the changes to come – sideman Luther Dickenson has alongside his electric guitar and cigar box numbers a regular acoustic and a double necked electric. The latter, for sure, does not belong in the hoboing life, and as Seasick Steve himself will go on to explain later there have, of course, been some improvements in his lifestyle over the years. And sitting high above the band there’s a huge screen which projects stage images of all the band members in pretty equal measure throughout the gig.

Naturally songs from ‘Can U Cook?‘, which is perhaps Steve’s most diverse album to date, cropped up pretty often through the night. ‘Shady Tree‘, played on the 3 string trance wonder is a basic twelve bar blues of amorous intent, praising long haired ladies and the shade they provide. This might just be a euphemism, as Steve describes how “You swaying above me / Like a shady tree / I’m underneath your cool shady tree.” It’s rough and raw and unsubtle, unlike a song such as ‘Sun on my face‘ or ‘Well, well, well‘, which Steve and Luther perform on acoustic guitars sitting centre stage whilst Dan takes a break. The introduction to ‘Sun on my face‘ has Seasick Steve reflecting on the tough times that they had recording the new album – in Key Largo, in a studio with an endless supply of cooled beers and just a few steps from the shoreline. Sometimes, we’re told, they put in up to five hours a day, “I didn’t sign up for this shit” Steve notes wryly. And ‘Sun on my face‘ captures this living hell, it’s soft and gentle, like a 1950’s crooner blues that adds in a bit of philosophising on it all coming good in the end “I’ve loved the womens, and the womens have loved me / But all things must pass / The years a-come and gone, and maybe I’ve just found / My own little piece of heaven at last“. Continuing with the quieter theme is ‘Chewin’ on the blues‘ which combines some subtle and tasty slide guitar from Luther with Seasick’s soulful singing about the inevitability of hard knocks in life “sooner or later everybody got to chew on the blues“, whilst Dan adds a spectral tone on the cymbals. It’s both a new sound for Steve and a stand-out moment in the gig.

Let it not be thought that Steve has gone soft on us though – there was plenty of high energy songs when Dan Magnusson could show off his astonishingly relentless and fast paced drumming. Take the new album’s title track which is a joyous cacophony as Steve shreds his one string washboard guitar, before bouncing around the stage and inducing an evil speaker feedback distortion whine. Or ‘You can’t teach a old dog new tricks‘ which has Steve powering out rhythm guitar on his double hubcab guitar whilst Luther dances all over it in a frantic display of blues lead guitar. It seems odd, at first – isn’t Steve the star? But he’s a humble one, sharing the stage equally with his band, calling on the support Prinz Grizzley to take a bow at the end of the show, and still thanking Jools Holland’s TV show for gifting him this late blooming career. He’s a lucky man, and he knows it.

The encore includes a new song, ‘Insta this‘, which was being performed, we were informed, for the first time ever, and featured Steve and Luther on acoustic guitars, sitting at the edge of the drum riser. It’s a song about living in the moment, and living more in the real world. Or, as Steve has it : “want to go back to another time when there wasn’t Insta this, snapchat that“, adding “for just one hour put your ‘phones away“. The latter is somewhat ironic with a good number of the crowd seemingly videoing every second of the evening. It’s a mellow song, with a gentle groove slightly despairing at those who’d “rather have a selfie than shake a hand“. Whatever else Seasick Steve is, there’s a bit of West Coast hippy in him. And with Steve adding the rhythm there’s another chance for Luther Dickenson to show off his lead guitar chops.

It’s been a relentless 90 minutes or so – Steve just never really stops – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the actual secret of his success.  The tour continues until the 21st of November.

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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