Seasick Steve

The 2009 Brit Awards are over and all is right with the world. Kanye West walked away with the international male solo artist prize, quelling any histrionics. He had tough competition, too, in Neil Diamond, Beck, Jay-Z and Seasick Steve.

That’s right: Seasick Steve.

It’s forgivable for Stateside readers to be puzzled. However, by his own account, Seasick Steve performed at more festivals in the U.K. last summer than any other performer.

He’s a product of Tennessee but lives overseas. His grizzled look and three-string guitar have made him a star in a land filled with the sweet sounds of Katie Melua and the pulsing beats of techno.

Dave Kaplan of The Agency Group is one of the recent converts. Kaplan, who has booked The White Stripes from inception, was hanging out with the band’s manager, Ian Montone, at a U.K. festival. They were packed into a tent with tens of thousands, watching a guy in overalls play a beat-up guitar.

Kaplan chatted with Seasick Steve afterward.

“He started telling us about this time he hopped a train,” Kaplan told Pollstar. “He was at a recording studio in Nashville, and he said the train was moving so slowly, he figured he could get on it. He was very engaging, very funny.”

One thing led to another and now the bluesman is expected to head Stateside in May for some club dates and maybe some festivals. But Kaplan knows it’s “early days” for Steve, who’s still looking for a U.S. record label and its marketing power.

As for touring the U.S., Steve said he’s ready.

“I don’t wanna kill myself doing it, but I’ll give it my best shot,” he told Pollstar.

And that’s all we could get out of him. Steve was in London, recovering from an illness that temporarily cost him his voice, so he had to communicate through his manager, Andy Zammit. Then it was off to Australia for some R&R.

“Going to America is a whole different ballgame because he had a heart attack about six years ago,” Zammit told Pollstar. “He values his life more than his career. … He does as much as he can. We’re at that transition point at the moment. It’s been U.K., Benelux, Australia and all of a sudden, in the past few months, everybody wants a slice of the action.”

So, who is this guy? To understand his newfound popularity, it’s best to start at the beginning.

Receiving only a few words from the man born Steven Gene Wold is fitting because his story has a mythical quality. He spent years as a transient, was friends with Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, and recorded indie bands, including Modest Mouse, in Olympia, Wash. He won’t tell his age out of superstition.

Basically, Wold was taught guitar at age 8 by an elderly black man who worked at his grandfather’s garage. When Steve was a teenager, a rift with his stepfather led to years of hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. He worked as a carnie, roofer, short-order cook, shoe salesman and carpenter, all the while playing cover music in bars.

His wife asked him in 2001 to move with her back to her native Norway, and Steve left behind his Olympia recording career. That’s nothing Steve wasn’t used to: The couple has lived in 59 houses over a span of 27 years, according to the musician.

Steve put together a trio called Seasick Steve & The Level Devils – he had acquired the nickname after getting sick on a ferry traveling from Norway to Denmark. The trio played some gigs and even put out a record, but the 2004 heart attack halted everything.

To keep Steve active, his wife asked him to record an album for her. Steve set up a four-track and two mics in the kitchen. The result found its way to Zammit, who distributed it on his one-man label, Bronzerat.

Meanwhile, the producers for Jools Holland’s “Annual Hootenanny” saw Steve at a soundcheck. That led to an appearance on New Year’s Eve, 2006.

“Things just went crazy as soon as that show finished; he became an overnight hit, I guess,” said Zammit, who quickly took on management duties. “I did everything by default. I booked his first tour in March. Just before that we got an agent [Mick Griffiths] because it was so obvious to everybody that Seasick Steve would be a huge festival hit.

“We played pretty much every festival you could imagine. We did the same thing the following year and that was that.”
Seasick Steve has two gold records in the U.K. Meanwhile, he’s sold out Royal Albert Hall.

“We’re taking it one step at a time and playing wherever we can,” Zammit said. “He’s big in Belgium – whatever that means! We’re just going inch by inch, taking it at a leisurely pace.”