Review by Ben Connolly
It was abundantly clear from the get-go that there was an elephant in the suffocatingly packed band room at The Corner Hotel, and it was in the guise of one John Paul Jones. This was not his gig – his name didn’t appear on the posters, gig guides or tickets and nor was there an allusion to him with the band’s name – Seasick Steve. Singular. Not “Seasick Steve and Friends”, not even the oblique “Seasick Steve Trio”. This was, for all intents and purposes, a solo gig by one of the most enigmatic and curious blues performers to have broken through into the mainstream during the past few years.
But it cannot be argued that the full house was solely there to bear witness to Seasick’s foreign hobo stories and wicked collection of do-it-yourself guitars. A cursory glance through the crowd put it almost overwhelmingly at middle-aged men; a stink of stale cigarette smoke clinging to their jackets, their greyed locks either trimmed close in demure recognition of their fading youth, or proudly allowed to grow and slicked back. They could easily be fans of either artist and a warm enough welcome was extended to the man with his name on the posters as he introduced the set with Diddley Bo, a slide blues number played on a junkyard one-string contraption.
His humbled introduction to one of the world’s greatest and most influential multi-instrumentalists still doing the rounds had the audience nail its colours firmly to the mast, however: it was the chance to see John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin’s solid bassist and stalwart of the rock scene for the past four decades – the most recent incarnation being a mind-warping trio Them Crooked Vultures with Foo Fighters/Nirvana linchpin Dave Grohl and Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme – up close and personal which had the room salivating. And with good reason, too, as he sauntered back into his four-string and easily wandered his fingers around the simple muddy blues of “Don’t Know Why She Loved Me But She Do” and “Cheap”, proving that the sheer star power was going to be hard to overcome.
It was a see-sawing act through the night, with JPJ’s simple presence threatening to derail the gig entirely and somewhat sideline Seasick’s quite considerable presence in his own right. He wrenched back some of the gig by plucking a girl from the front row to serenade “Walkin’ Man” to, but he had the attention firmly pulled back to the left of the stage with some fierce mandolin solos in “What A Way To Go” and “Last Po’ Man”. With the dam of adulation to the left of stage burst, Seasick calmy rose from his seat and strolled to JPJ’s microphone stand to begin what initially seemed like one of his trademarked rambling story-telling sessions, but it turned into an intensely sinister half-whispered, half-growled spoken word chorus kicking off Never Head West: “Well, we rolled into town / We were walkin’ down the street / Oh, I knew somethin’ wrong, I could feel the heat / Up come the po-lice, said: ‘Welcome to town’ / ‘Hop in the back set boys, gunna show you ‘round’ / Never head West, when you should be heading South”. Cue, at this point, drummer Dan Magnussen’s rather accurate life-like version of The Muppet’s Animal and Steve firmly maintains control of the rest of the show.
That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing from there. JPJs apparent sidelining – save for a few lilting mandolin and slide lap steel guitar highlights – left his devotees seemingly restless, with rising murmurs reverberating around the room. During lighter moments, a gaggle of women Googled “Seasick Steve” on phones from the back of the room, intoxicatingly questioning who he was; a couple of younger dudes interrupted the surprisingly touching Hobo Blues to discuss their latest camping expedition; a hostile bloke with a bellyful blithely ruined for everyone in his vicinity a raucous a-capella sing-a-long of The Everly Brother’s “Cathy’s Clown”. It was a strange crowd, easily one of Melbourne’s worst, and only to be shockingly topped by Seasick himself having to cut short a grinding intro You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks to admonish a man disrupting things down the front.
On a Tuesday night after a four-day-weekend it was possibly tiredness making the collective cantankerous, but with the gig coming up on the 2 hour mark, even Seasick himself seemed unsure of our ability to take the encore, questioning: “Are you really sure about this?” before launching into his now-familiar tale of abuse and treachery at the hands of his step-father which lead him on his life’s journey as a self-confessed hobo. It cut a little close to the bone, it was a little unbelievable, it was exotically unfamiliar… but yet that one long story seemed to confirm the rest of the evening – it was Seasick’s very tale of being alongside such a luminary and put paid to any notions that they were not worthy to share. A 20 minute rambling blues encore seemingly convinced the restless mass, too. Eventually.
Review by Ben Connolly
Bluesfest Byron Bay sideshow.