Though Man From Another Time is only his fourth studio album, Seasick Steve sings like a man who’s been around since the blues got their start in the sweaty, swampy Mississippi delta. His gruff and gnarled voice carries the weight of years, and his delta blues slide playing (alternately on something he calls his “three-string trance wonder,” a homemade cigar-box guitar and the remarkably primitive “Didley Bo”) harkens back to that haunted and fabled time when Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil at a midnight crossroads.
Man From Another Time was recorded in a live studio setting on analogue equipment, permeating the tracks with a warm, but not overpowering, tape hiss, and the loose feel that can only be generated by a live recording. Steve’s vocals often bounce with slap echo with tin-can clarity, and the rhythm section keeps the proceedings muddy and prowling for the most part.
All of this gives credibility to the album’s title, and though there are hints of nostalgia here (as on the title track in which Steve reminisces about a time when “coffee only cost one dime,”) the album itself serves as a sort of time machine, transporting the listener to the early days of homemade blues, rather than merely providing a fleeting glimpse.
Opener Didley Bo thumps and writhes to a sludgy beat reminiscent of Who Do You Love, with Steve sliding loosely and singing praises to his Didley Bo, a two-by-four with a guitar string nailed to it. The same sort of jubilant reverie is repeated in the album closer, the thumping, foot-stomping Seasick Boogie, and the bookend effect suits the album nicely.
Big Green and Yeller channels The Black Keys (or, more likely, one of their distant influences) with Steve’s road-warn tin-can vocals further distorted to haunting effect. Despite the brawny gruffness of the music, Steve’s sense of humour shines through as he howls about his plans to buy a John Deere tractor and block traffic: “I’m gonna drive my tractor all day long.”
Steve’s humour rings throughout the album, but the more endearing tracks are those in which he lets his guard down and presents himself as the gnarled old bluesman he is. The first hint of genuine blues longing comes with The Banjo Song, in which Steve laments, “All the signs sayin’ you’re much too old to ever have a home.” This sense of disjointedness with the modern world, and his willingness to face it, elevate Steve from a merely credible narrator to a sort of sage, wizened by the passing years.
In the wandering acoustic piece, Just Because I Can (CSX) Steve confronts his own mortality: “But you never know how long you’ve got,/ so I’m gonna ride all day for free./ Just because I can.” And on Dark, Steve channels Robert Johnson in a genuinely dark lament, barely croaking in the lower register of his baritone, “The road I take is made for one/ I don’t regret all the things I’ve done.”
The standout track here though is the unlisted hidden track, a one-guitar acoustic duet with the lovely Amy LaVere on Hank Williams‘s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. The two accent one another’s strong points nicely and the tune becomes a tender, if not shakily constructed, look at a different side of Seasick Steve, one you can’t help but wish he’d show more often.
On the title track, Steve asks, “Don’t you got nothin’ better to do than listen to a man from another time?” The album presents itself as a fitting answer to that question, and an appeal to anyone wanting to look into the distant delta past. If you’re willing to take the trip, Seasick Steve is certainly a worthy tour guide.