with Duke Garwood
Royal Festival Hall - Southbank Centre
June 14, 2010
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Duke Garwood’s first song was as slow as a drawl, the words ‘flesh and blood’ being the only distinguishable ones. It wasn’t until Garwood’s fourth song, ‘Where Are All These Chains’? (and the question mark also questions the accuracy of that title), that the group, consisting of singer Garwood on guitar, fiddle player, drummer and clarinet player, got into stride, when lighter instrumentation finally allowed guitar and lyrics to be heard more clearly. Until then, they’d been, admittedly plagued by muddy sound and at times, unwelcome feedback. Throughout their set, whenever their music got fuller, lyrics got lost. At that point, I considered them a mellow, bluesy, country-rock group. One dirge like piece later on in the set, a real downer by all accounts, reminded some audience members of their acute thirsts, prompting them to leave the hall. ‘Hawaiian Death Ballad’ followed...If I had to describe their music then, I would have called it laid back, bluesy, spaced out, country and western rock – too laid back for an opening act, generally meant to bring some life to the hall. Still, a few scattered fans in the crowd cheered. That said, it was lights on, group off at the end of Garwood’s set.
When Seasick Steve arrived on stage with his three string guitar (yes, you read that right) and Mississippi Drum Machine, aka wooden box with a Mississippi license plate on front, it was a different scene altogether as Steve immediately lead the crowd right where he wanted to take them, and boy, were they willing to follow! Steve’s one hell of a bluesman growling along with his guitar which snakes through his sung stories, many autobiographical, with his foot keeping time. A real bluesman is a rare thing these days, but Steve’s definitely for real. I’m no expert, but I’ve seen some of the greats: John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, BB King, Gatemouth Brown and loads of Chicago and Delta bluesmen at the annual River Blues Festivals in Philly, not to mention the amazing musicians I’d seen at now defunct South Street Blues, a genuine local juke joint, where unknown giants played and jammed for hours on end, sorely missed since its coffee-shop conversion some years back. Although Steve’s material is his own, done in his own distinctive style, thanks to his soulful delivery, mid-way between knowing and wondering, Steve brought all that back for me and then kicked open a few new doors too, for which I was and am supremely grateful. I’d forgotten how good blues can be.
The fact that Steve knows of what he sings is evident, as he sings from the soul, with everything he’s got. I won’t get into his background too much here, but suffice it to say that songs like ‘Hobo Low’, with its’ lyrics of ‘I’ve seen things money can’t buy, from a moving freight - a midnight sky,’ especially when sung from experience, would strike at the heart of a statue. My late grandmother told me stories about all the men wandering around during the Great Depression and I’d seen the aftermath of it years later, in the person of old men, riding boxcars, as I grew up near railroad tracks. Steve’s known that rail-riding life firsthand and gives us the feeling of those hard times through his songs.
One of the main things the audience latched onto at this show was Steve’s take me as I am attitude, which is no attitude at all. In an era of hip-grinding, body building, low talent, everywhere you go, talent on show, it’s really refreshing to be in the company of someone so unpretentious and honestly talented! Steve and his bulls-eye drummer, Duke, another bearded musician who’s stacked up some sunrises really cook and openly enjoy every minute of what they’re doing. This makes getting into them a real give and take affair. Before this show, I’d only ever seen Seasick Steve on you-tube, as I gave my telly the heave-ho eight years ago in favour of real life, so every number he performed live at this show was a highlight for me! Real music can be a wake-up call, and the whole RFH was buzzing from bottom to top by the time Steve finished his opening number and things just went up from there.
From his opening remark, ‘Ain’t you got nothin’ better to do?’ through his extensive hand shaking in the audience, starting at the front row, and heading back, with one woman near OAP status rushing up for a hug, songs like ‘Cut My Wings’, ‘Thunderbird’, reminding me of the cheap wine we’d cop as teenagers and gritty ‘Hobo Low,’ it felt like we were all on a learning curve, with Steve sticking his neck out first. Bluesy ballads like ‘Walkin’ Man,’ on which Steve’s voice softens to a steady crooning purr, as he serenades, according to him, a different woman from the audience at each show, proves he can soothe as well as ignite. At this show, he brought a young woman onstage whose boyfriend he’d met earlier that day in Soho, had a chat with and invited to the show. Not something a ‘star’ would do.
Steve is also known for utilising all sorts of instruments in the course of his shows, most of them home-made, and this gig was no exception, as he was handed a different one for nearly every song, among them, a banjo, a one stringed affair he calls his ‘diddly bo’ that appeared to have squashed tin can on one end of it and a circular stringed instrument a friend had made him from two disused, he claims, ‘Morris Minor’ hubcaps. The amazing variety of sounds Steve manages to make from his contraptions are only akin to those I’ve only experienced in the company of African musicians, one of whom at WOMAD, Charlton Park last year amazed the crowd at a workshop by stating that he uses fishing tackle for strings on his instrument.
Even those inflicted with perpetual coolness thawed enough to join in the singing of one of Steve’s signature songs, ‘Dog House Boogie’ on which he opened up like a roaring furnace on the ‘been there,’ done that chorus. Nowadays, it’s amazing a bluesman can even have one signature song, let alone two or three. In Steve’s case, his material’s all his own and each and every song seems to have that potential. We were treated to three brand new songs at this show, all gems, among them, ‘Going Up’, an unrequited love chant with shades of Howling Wolf flickering through it like a burning fire.
Since 2007, when Seasick Steve was voted Mojo’s ‘Best Newcomer’, subsequently appearing on Jools Holland’s late night TV show and gigging round the UK and Europe, his sound has been compared to that of many other musicians, Jimi Hendrix being one of them and I sometimes detect strains of Cajun in his guitar licks and singing. But rest assured that Steve’s his own person, and that’s one of the things I, and lots of other happily cheering Meltdown goers will always like best about him.
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