Album review: Seasick Steve – Keepin’ the Horse Between Me and the Ground

By Innes MacKintosh

The closing track on this album is a cover of the Hank Williams country classic, I’m So Lonesome. A simple and yet wonderfully pretty performance, it ends Keepin’ the Horse Between Me and the Ground with a demonstration that simple country tunes with just three chords and a guitar can still tap into something deep and quite primal. It’s an atmosphere that the album takes some time to discover.

The eighth studio album by idiosyncratic blues-man Steven Gene Wold, Keepin’… is a sprawling twenty-song effort, comprising of one disc of electric music and another of acoustic songs, but keeps a rather minimalist approach in both cases.

The electric half mainly consists of guitar, vocals and drums, with a few exceptions. The problem with this spare approach is that the arrangements are too precise to sound like a band flying by the seat of their pants (in the case of the Rolling Stones’ excellent blues album from late last year), but there’s also just enough going on that it takes away from the raw power of “the blooze” form. The production is also very flat – all the instruments and vocals are completely dry, giving the music a studio-like sterility which sounds too artificial for the content.

The songs themselves are mainly built on grooves or guitar riffs with very little development, which is fine, as long as you like the groove – but if you don’t you’re stuck with it for the rest of the track. The lyrics are mainly Wild West images and old blues motifs but in this case, Wold injects his brilliant humour into them to keep them fresh, and there is always a sense of tongue-in-cheek awareness pervading Keepin’… as a whole. Furthermore, Wold’s singing is excellent, displays an impressive range, and has the timbre of someone half his age. His guitar playing is also exemplary, displaying a mastery of effects pedals which gives some much-needed spice throughout the electric half. Gypsy Blood, a breakneck romp with a sense of recklessness and spontaneity lacking from much of the rest of the disc, and Grass is Greener, a bluegrass number augmented with banjo and fiddle, are standouts from the otherwise relatively lacking first disc.

Then we come to the solo acoustic half, and the album finally hits its stride. Comprised of six originals and four covers, these songs feel authentic, real – with ambient tones and a general intimacy giving the effect of the songs being recorded in a shed in the West, with just countryside for miles around. It’s a revelatory change, as it still showcases Wold’s vocal and instrumental skills, but also presents the songs in a manner appropriate to the content, allowing them to shine too. The covers are simple but effective, and the originals run the gamut of ideas, from the melancholy Hard Knocks to the wonderfully zany Southern Biscuits, essentially a recipe put to music.

All in all, Keepin… is a true Jekyll/Hyde album. The first disc never really settles, and at times feels quite artificial, the second half is a triumph of simple effectiveness over unnecessary gloss. Ironically, the album is at its best when Seasick Steve doesn’t keep the horse between himself and the ground – when he digs right into the dust, immerses himself in the American land, and gives the songs the real, genuine presentation they deserve.