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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
FOLK AMERICA
HOLLERERS, STOMPERS AND OLD TIME RAMBLERS
Seasick Steve

The Barbican, London
January 21st 2009

 

Things have certainly come a long way for ‘hobo’ bluesman and collector of largely dysfunctional guitars, Seasick Steve, since your Whiskyfun reviewers saw him at the Borderline just over a couple of years ago.
You may remember that he’d just been ‘discovered’ – courtesy of the patronage of London DJs such as Charlie Gillet and Joe Cushley, and the ‘novelty spot’ on Jools Holland’s 2006 Hogmanay Show (this year’s contenders, a ‘humourous’ harmonica four-piece from Finland or thereabouts, didn’t quite hit the same spot). He moved seamlessly from the Borderline to Festival stages throughout the country and has been a must-have performer at the likes of Glastonbury and Reading ever since. At the end of last year he toured the UK – starting with a sell-out show at the Royal Albert Hall (the Borderline, capacity 275, Albert Hall, capacity 7,000), which I would have predicted to be a disaster, given the cold nature of that late-Victorian structure, but typically Steve delivered a “hugely entertaining, at times staggering show”, according to the Guardian. He’s even been nominated for a Brit Award (“I didn’t know what a Brit was, but if it means I’ve done a good job, then that’s ok”), and having won us over with his insouciant charm, self-deprecating manner, and genuine sense of humility (not to mention his wonderful playing and singing), is in danger of becoming, if he isn’t already, a certified National Treasure. And I can’t help thinking that his presence on stage as compere of this first of two ‘Folk America’ concerts at the Barbican, has helped fill the hall with a wonderfully disparate and enthusiastic audience, because a lot of us, like Steve, haven’t heard of any of the mostly young performers on this bill of ‘Hollerers, Stompers and Old Time Ramblers’.
The two concerts are part of a BBC series on American roots and folk music, so depending on where you live, you may be able to see some of the wonderful films that have been assembled for this, including concert footage, on the equally wonderful BBC iPlayer. And whilst the first night was a sell-out, the second, ‘Greenwich Village Revisited’ was apparently struggling to shift seats, judging by the 20% discount that was being offered, and the fact that it was still being advertised two days after the event – desperation indeed. No doubt down to the Billy Bragg effect, as the Braggster was introducing night two – and let’s face it, who wants to be harangued by Billy about Woody Guthrie, like a classroom of ignorant school children, in the middle of a recession that might just be as deep as the dust bowl?
Seasick   No – Seasick’s laid back approach was far better, starting the evening with a few tunes like ‘Falling down blues’, and then sitting back in his rocking chair, giving the briefest introduction to each artist. It was his rocking chair, and the clothes on the hokey washing line behind him were his, as was much of the other bashed-up furniture, purchased largely, we were told, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which as any of you whisky travellers will know, is on the road to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg. Tonight, no doubt to abide by BBC regulations, Seasick’s bottle of Jack, his ever-present on-stage companion, is suitably disguised with a mock label and surely a collector’s item by now.
The evening’s performers were an eclectic bunch, and frankly it was one of those occasions when the second half somewhat failed to live up to the promise of the first. Final act The Wiyos, were entertaining enough with their take on Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Dying crapshooter’s blues’ and “pick-me up murder ballad” ‘Leaving home’, aka ‘Frankie and Johnny’, but were in reality only a rather inferior ‘roots’ take on Spike Jones and His City Slickers – playing very well but not as amusing as they thought. And their urbanity (they’re from Brooklyn) was somewhat at odds with all the other performances. Preceding them, Diana Jones (“she brought the silence on me” said Steve of her rehearsals) was worthy, with songs about dying Scottish miners trapped in the bowels of the Appalachians, and the indignities suffered by native American children at the hands of ‘educators’. But her vocal range seemed somehow stunted, and without her accomplished accompanists on tenor guitar and fiddle, her set would have been weak in the extreme. Compared with this, the first half was a delight. Allison Williams, on claw-hammer banjo, and fiddler Chance McCoy powered their way through tunes such as ‘Dance all night with a bottle in your hand’ (a new Whiskyfun anthem perhaps?) and ‘Wild Bill Jones’ (“Wild Bill Jones and that long-necked bottle have been the ruin of me …”) with a remarkable energy, and the dancing of guitarist Danny Knicely brought the audience to their feet. The talkative fiddler and accordionist Cedric Watson and his Bijoux Creole gave us a slightly different take on the Louisiana Zydeco style, with some wonderfully percussive full-body washboard playing from Joseph Chaisson.
However pick of the bunch was the unlikely American/Australian bluesman C. W. Stoneking, with a voice and style that has to be heard to be believed. “Man, he lost in the 1920s” said Steve, which is a pretty good summary of Stoneking’s ‘hokum’ style. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as simply a pastiche performer – his songs, which in this short set ranged from ‘Darktown strutters’ ball’, ‘Dodo blues’ and the “Jungle calypso murder ballad” ‘Love me or die’ have real depth and colour, and an edge which means that Mr Stoneking has been filed in my very favourite ‘Weird’ box. And I don’t think I was alone in my enthusiasm – the rush for his CDs from the merchandise stall was such that they were as rare as, well, Dodos. Catch him if you can. Dodo
Big Encore
Seasick, accompanied by drummer Dan Magnusson, ended the evening with two more tunes, but not before he’d given us some cookery tips on how to make an apple pie in a skillet – “an apple pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze”. They played ‘Waiting for the train’ and ‘Chiggers’, a tribute to the little critters who inhabit the tall grass of the Mississippi Delta and will eat you up if you give them the chance (who else could get away with the line – “I wear my socks up to my knees”?), before the entire company returned for the obligatory big encore, Uncle Dave Macon’s ‘Won’t get drunk no more’. At which point the audience delivered the ovation it had rehearsed with the BBC’s film crew at the start of the evening, although by this point it had been well and truly earned by all. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)
Listen: C.W. Stoneking (and his gothic hillbilly music) on MySpace
Seasick Steve's MySpace page



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