To say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is to say that someone is going to stay the same, that they’re going to keep on doing the same old thing. My grandmother used to say this to me, but then proved herself wrong by learning, quite competently, how to use an iPod. Of course, she was listening to old Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, but the idea was there, and so I began to think that perhaps this old saying wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Then, last month, the new record from Seasick Steve, his fourth, landed on my desk entitled, of course, You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks, and as I mentioned in the subsequent review in June Rhythms, this had me worried – maybe it’d turn out to be prophetic and my Gran (pre-iPod) was right, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and it’d basically be the same record Steve has churned out three or four times already.
However, I was pleasantly surprised because amongst the fuzzed out blues Steve has become well known for over the past five years, there was some new stuff, some deep and meaningful stuff, a severe deviation from what had become the norm, some new tricks if you will, from this old dog, Seasick Steve Wold. Opener, ’Treasures’, for example, is a soft, meandering lament, just vocal and battered acoustic guitar with a smattering of banjo and fiddle over the top. ‘Underneath A Blue And Cloudless Sky’ is stripped back Kentucky bluegrass. ‘Long Long Way’ would be right at home in Johnny Cash’s back catalogue. And ‘What A Way To Go’ harks back to ‘20s gospel choirs, albeit Steve-style – this is an old dog, but on further investigation, these aren’t, despite what we’ve heard from him in the past, new tricks.
“Well it’s funny, because I never really thought of myself as a blues artist,” he muses firstly, on the pigeonhole he’s been stuffed into over the years. “I always thought of myself as… well, country isn’t the right word, but more hillbilly, because I love old country blues, but I love Hank Williams too and I love Dock Boggs and I love rock ‘n’ roll, so I always figured it was just kind of a mess.
“So when I made this record, I don’t know if I sound different or whatever, but it’s obviously come out. When we were recording, Dan (Magnusson, drummer) would go home and I’d just play by myself, and I didn’t have no plan,” he continues. “So I’d pick up the banjo and go, ‘Shit, I like this song’. And that first song, ‘Treasures’, I dunno where the hell that came from… so it was pretty haphazard, you know? I didn’t think so much that this record sounded different from the last, but that’s what people have been telling me and so I’ve started seeing it through other people’s eyes… so maybe it does sound different.”
It seems that to Steve, it’s all music. As he goes on to say, when no one is interested in you, “there ain’t much reason to contemplate what kinda music you’re playing”. When he did come to prominence, back in 2007, people were quick with the blues tag and so now when he does something that isn’t blues, people are tumbling over themselves to find an apt descriptor. But the man is just playing whatever music that comes into his head. As he’s said in the past, he’s “a song and dance man”, and You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks seems to illustrate that perfectly.
Another area in which You Can’t Teach… is different is with the collaborators Steve has brought into the fold. Of course, he’s backed by his percussionist foil Magnusson, but he’s also brought in his son, Paul Martin Wold who wrote and plays washboard and sings on ‘Whiskey Ballad’, his other son Henry James Wold, who has a co-producer credit, the Lyndhurst Rabble Choir on closer, ‘Long Long Way’, Georgina Leach on fiddle and one John Paul Jones playing mandolin and bass. Yes, that John Paul Jones.
“One of the nights Dan and I were sitting around more drinking than playing, and we thought, ‘Hey, we should have bass on one of these songs’, but neither one of us knew any bass players,” he laughs on how Jones came to be involved. “Dan is a huge Zeppelin fan, so he said we should get the guy from Led Zeppelin, and then by some strange coincidence we got a hold of someone who knew him and I just left a message… I asked him if he wanted to play on our record, and he said yep.
“And he is seriously good,” Steve goes on with another laugh. “I didn’t know if he was gonna be able to play with us, but he just jumped in there and rocked. He knew the song better than we did.” So it was this fortuitous event which has added to what is, despite what Seasick Steve himself may think, a pretty different record to anything he’s released in the past. And it’s refreshing too, because it shows this man is capable of moving wherever he likes. Over the past few years, Seasick Steve has been tagged as somewhat of a novelty act, and so to see him branch out and embrace new (to us) styles, is the mark of a true musician, not just an ex-hobo who happens to be able to bang out some blues.
“Absolutely, this is definitely my freest record to date,” he concurs when I suggest as much. Steve attributes this to the fact he had no record company backing him when he and Magnusson made You Can’t Teach…, but I feel it’s also because he’s a man now comfortable in his own skin, comfortable with the attention he garners from so many. Seasick Steve Wold may indeed be an old dog, but he’s an old dog who’s got plenty of new tricks up his sleeve, you can bet the doghouse on that.
Samuel J. Fell