Hobo sapi­ens

He jumped a train to es­cape an abu­sive step­fa­ther, and be­gan a life jour­ney that took him to Haight-Ash­bury at the height of flower power, and to the north-west at the birth of grunge. But now Sea­sick Steve has fetched up in the strangest place of all – a

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

THE next time Sea­sick Steve plays in Lon­don, it will be in the Royal Al­bert Hall on the posh side of town. It may well be the first time a for­mer train-jump­ing hobo from Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia has played that pala­tial hall since Queen Vic­to­ria opened it in 1871. Truth be told, the Proms don’t usu­ally fea­ture that type of char­ac­ter in their ranks.

Sea­sick Steve says he’s look­ing for­ward to that big night. Then again, he says with a deep, sat­is­fied chuckle, he’s look­ing for­ward to ev­ery­thing right now. The way he sees it, it’s all good. “I keep think­ing I’m go­ing to wake up and find out it’s all a dream.”

Over the last 18 months, ever since he ap­peared on Jools Hol­land’s Hoo­te­nanny on New Year’s Eve 2006 and stole the show, Sea­sick Steve must have pinched him­self a fair few times.

This has been a heart-warm­ing suc­cess story. With his Dog House Blues album spread­ing the word, he has pulled crowds to ev­ery gig. Last sum­mer, he was the hit of the fes­ti­val cir­cuit, fill­ing tents week in and week out. The growth in his Ir­ish pop­u­lar­ity can be charted in how he has moved from Dublin’s Craw­daddy to the Spiegel­tent to Tri­pod in the space of nine months.

He’s got quite a yarn to tell, this griz­zly, bearded blues­man in the faded dun­ga­rees who looks like he’s just stepped out of an ad for a back­woods whiskey bon­der. As he talks about his ca­pers and ad­ven­tures, you won­der how long it will take for some Hol­ly­wood scriptwriter to cop the po­ten­tial in Steve Wold’s life story.

The mu­sic bug bit Wold on the ass early on. “My daddy would play the boo­gie pi­ano and I’d lap it up.” Years later, long af­ter his fa­ther died, Wold dis­cov­ered a host of old 78s fea­tur­ing his dad play­ing. “You could tell he was good; he was all over that shit.”

Wold knew he didn’t have the fin­gers for the pi­ano so he learned the gui­tar in­stead from an old-timer called KC Douglas. “He taught me how to play a few chords, which turned out to be blues chords that they used to play down in Mis­sis­sippi where he orig­i­nally hailed from.”

Do­mes­tic dis­cord at home (“my par­ents split when I was a young one and I had a step-daddy who started slap­ping us around and that did it for me”) forced him to high­tail it from home and hit the train tracks.

“I lived rough and I rode the trains. I fol- lowed the work around the coun­try; I was a mi­grant farm­hand.” Look­ing back now on those wild days, when he went from pick­ing ap­ples to toma­toes de­pend­ing on the sea­son, Wold ac­knowl­edges that he’s edited out a lot of the darker stuff which used to oc­cur when he was roam­ing from town to town.

“Some of it wasn’t nice. Some­times it seemed like my whole life was a whole lot hairier back in those days. But when it wasn’t hairy, it was kind of bor­ing. At the time, it seemed nor­mal. When you’re young, you put up with that Skid Row kind of life. You don’t think about it, you just do it.”

All the time, he was still play­ing mu­sic and col­lect­ing tall tales for short songs. He shored up in San Fran­cisco’s Haight-Ash­bury for a spell in the late 1960s. He de­scribes those flower power days as “hobo heaven”, where he got his bed and board­ing for free, hung out with var­i­ous bands and was taken un­der the wing of such coun­try-blues leg­ends as Son House and Mis­sis­sippi Fred McDow­ell.

Dur­ing the 1970s, Wold con­tin­ued to roam. He spent time in Paris, busk­ing to get by. He be­gan to put down roots in Ten­nessee, where he mar­ried a Nor­we­gian wo­man and be­gan to raise a brood of kids.

Along the­way, he’d started to work in record­ing stu­dios. “I liked the tech­ni­cal stuff so I de­cided I wanted to know how to run a stu­dio. Plenty of en­gi­neers had tried to tell me it was all a big mys­tery, but I fig­ured it couldn’t be that much of a mys­tery if they could do it, so I learned the shit.”

A cou­ple of years later, his wife tired of Ten­nessee and han­kered for a move. “She wanted to move some­where that looked like her na­tive Nor­way. She was tired of the scenery in Ten­nessee so I tried to think of a place in Amer­ica that had wa­ter­ways and ever­greens. We got a map of Wash­ing­ton [State] and blindly stuck our fin­ger on the map and hit Olympia.”

Wold was ap­pre­hen­sive. “I wouldn’t have picked Olympia be­cause I re­mem­ber the city as a real red­neck hang­out in the Six­ties. It was nasty, man. It was a log­ging town and it was rough. When you’d be try­ing to hitch­hike through Wash­ing­ton, if you were look­ing to go from Seat­tle to Port­land, you didn’t take a ride that was stop­ping in Olympia. But we stuck with the choice.”

What Wold didn’t re­alise as he and his fam­ily packed up the stu­dio and trucked to the north-west was that Olympia had changed. It was now a lib­eral bolt­hole with a very healthy band scene – and grunge was just around the cor­ner. “The first week I was there, I saw Nir­vana play­ing in a bar.” The stu­dio did mighty busi­ness. Wold recorded 80 or 90 al­bums and ended up play­ing gui­tar with Mod­est Mouse for a spell.

But what Wold re­ally wanted to do was play his own mu­sic, that coun­try-blues which had stayed with him down through the years. “I played ev­ery kind of mu­sic you can imag­ine to get by. Man, I used to reg­u­larly play The Girl from Ipanema in the bar of a Hol­i­day Inn while I was rais­ing five kids. But when I was sit­ting by my­self, I played the mu­sic I grew up with, the mu­sic I still play now. I al­ways played the same stuff.”

But he wasn’t find­ing much love for what he was play­ing. “Ev­ery so of­ten, bands in the stu­dio would ask me what kind of mu­sic I played and I’d say ‘oh, I play coun­try-blues’ and their eyes would glaze over. They were so un­in­ter­ested that it never even oc­curred to me to play my tunes for them. The last time any­one was in­ter­ested in what I had to play was the late Six­ties or early Sev­en­ties.”

When Ge­orge Walker Bush came to power, Mr and Mrs Sea­sick looked at each other and de­cided it was time to move again. “I don’t like the way so­ci­ety in Amer­ica has be­come less and less car­ing over the years. When peo­ple are in a hurry, they don’t even see the peo­ple who have fallen through the cracks any more.” They gave Nor­way a shot and never looked back. Sea­sick recorded an album, Cheap, and started to play more and more gigs and an­noy the purists.

There’s an almighty snort from Wold at

this stage. “I call them the blues po­lice,” he says dis­mis­sively. “There have been a few times, es­pe­cially when I started play­ing first of all over in Scan­di­navia, that peo­ple would get up and walk out of the shows.

“I am so un­in­ter­ested in their opin­ions and what they think. I think the purism is what killed the whole thing. I don’t talk to blues mag­a­zines, I don’t play blues fes­ti­vals. I pre­fer not to have any­thing to do with them.”

But th­ese days, Sea­sick doesn’t have to worry about the blues po­lice any more. He’s moved on, far from their petty squab­bles and point-scor­ing. The other night, for in­stance, he played a sell-out show in Leeds. A great show, a great re­sponse. They raised the rafters, he says. Af­ter­wards, he got in his camper van, drove down south for a cou­ple of hours and parked up out­side a stu­dio in the mid­dle of the coun­try. He’s about to be­gin record­ing a new album and that makes him the hap­pi­est man alive.

Sea­sick Steve ad­mits he hasn’t been scratch­ing his head too much try­ing to work out what the hell has hap­pened in the last year or so. He’s been too busy en­joy­ing the buzz.

“I don’t think about why it didn’t hap­pen be­fore now, to be hon­est. I’m just so grate­ful that some­thing is hap­pen­ing now. I think peo­ple got a lit­tle fed up with ev­ery­thing else and things be­ing so fancy that they just like me just sit­ting there with my bat­tered old gui­tar and do­ing my hol­ler­ing.

“All the shows I’m do­ing are sold out and peo­ple are ex­cited and scream­ing at me. Peo­ple were a lit­tle bit hun­gry for some­thing dif­fer­ent and, well, then I came along.”

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