Album Review: Seasick Steve, I Started Out With Nothin’ And I Still Got Most Of It Left

[from MadeLoud, December 17, 2008]

The history of American blues music is littered with more complex and interesting backstories than a person could count; given the storytelling-based nature of the genre, it makes sense that its best practicioners are often the ones with the most to say.

But if it really is the case that biography equals blues, Seasick Steve may be the bluesiest man to ever walk the planet. Born in Oakland, raised in the deep south, taught to play by a wandering genius, living on the streets for decades, traversing European residences by the dozens with his Norwegian wife and an arsenal of three wholly custom and highly unique instruments usually give a person more blues credibility than they could ever possibly need. Unfortunately for Mr. Seasick (real name Steve Wold) and bluesmen everywhere, the narrative isn’t everything, and thus his second album, I Started Out With Nothin’ and I Still Got Most Of It Left, was born.

To call Nothin’ a revivalist record would be understatement; most (if not all) of this record wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950s front porch swamp jam. Slide guitar, four-piece drum accompaniment, gospel backing vocals, I-IV-V structures – Seasick knows his blues and knows it well, which is at once the best and worst things Nothin’ has going for it.

The problem isn’t in any particular song. As it stands, every single track on Nothin’ is about as solid a blues number even the most demanding fan could hope or ask for. But like most blues albums, the songs blend just a little too well to actually hold up through a continuous listen. The sliding licks of the opening title track are a breath of fresh air, but the effect is lost even through the shifts in tempo and lyrical themes that drive the rest of the disc. To its credit, Nothin’ makes excellent use of its guest personnel. “Just Like a King” features outstanding contributions by the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis-fueled Grinderman, Ruby Turner’s soulful leads in the he said/she said duet of “Happy Man” breathe new life into what would otherwise be just another song about a guy who likes a girl, and KT Tunstall’s backing vocals give an air of robust sweetness to the down-home work chant of “Prospect Line.”

Seasick Steve is also a big fan of the blues-standard spoken word introduction (“This is a song, really, about nothin’, you know? That’s exactly what it’s about.”). Purists may delight in his nod to the old craftsmanship of the genre, but casual listeners may not have the patience for even these brief moments of old-timey self-indulgence. Truth be told, the story of Steve’s speeches is pretty much the story of this album: devoted blues fans will rejoice, while the less-than-hardcore may not be up to the task.