Review Summary: He’s as old as my grand dad, has only been making albums successfully for the past few years, he gets seasick, and his name is Steve.
You generally need something relatable to talk about if you’re yearning to make a good blues record. It essentially fails otherwise, unless you’re a killer instrumentalist -- having both is preferable. Seasick Steve (Steve Gene Wold), having spent most of his career dodging unemployment by weaving in and out of casual work as a roadie, a busker and a studio engineer, certainly knows a thing or two about how to make a good set of studio jams (skilful playing) with some of life’s stories (relatable things to talk about) thrown in. You’d think that as one aged, their music would follow suit, even their outlook too. Yet Wold, though conscious of it, doesn’t seem to care for such things, and that is what makes him and his music so tangible. It suits any moment and any realm, from a market, to a pub, or a basement, to a car stereo. He either presents light-hearted pub rock sing-alongs, or more sombre tales of his travels, sometimes opting for an acoustic warmth over electric fuzz; here he also throws in some banjo twang which is relatively new. In whatever environment Wold thrives alongside charismatic friendliness, gravelly vocals, a lot of whisky, custom guitars, and a stomp box.
But if you’re not overly familiar with him, or his magnetism, fear not because You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
contains some of his most enjoyable material yet. With fiery riffs commanding the album’s up-tempo centrepieces, Wold confirms that he’s aging with poise; if anything he’s apparently not aging at all which is all the more better for his cause. The title track, “Back in the Doghouse” and “Days Gone”, all sound like new versions of John Lee Hooker
gone mad with a bottleneck and illustrate his foundational blues rock boogie in glory. At their heart is his custom three string guitar, affectionately known as the “Three-String Trance Wonder”. This guitar is a wonder, not only because of is timbre, but the way he plays it. How he manages to turn a dog of an instrument into a wailing beast is surely down to pure talent; it’s further propelled by some equally effective drum work by Dan Magnusson. Bassist, John Paul Jones, also gets a word in on a few tracks. The softer sides are distributed between sombre reflections and joyful ballads. The icebreaker “Treasures” for example, is weirdly effective, given its contrasting dark and melancholic tone. Contrastingly at the midway is "Whiskey Ballad", which is easily something you'd want to chant to whilst smashed.
Such variations, like those above, are why this latest effort is so agreeable, even providing moments of unheralded intimacy where they’d usually be missing. But the album’s most affecting statement comes during its concluding minutes. “Levee Camp Blues”, is a 13 minute spoken word tale about his time during 1967 that must be heard in full order to appreciate his untold empathy and humanity, which he clearly (though unassumingly) uses for inspiration throughout his musical endeavours. He finally thanks us for listening, but really it’s us that should be thanking him.