I’m not about to start writing concert reviews, but I think the Steven Seagal Blues Band tour is worth an explanation. From the moment I first heard about the show to the second I got there, I really had no clue what the hell was gonna happen. And I had many discussions with people about who was gonna show up, if anybody. Wouldn’t it just be young people going to laugh at him? Would it be embarassing? Would he have to break a dude’s wrist and throw him through a window? Or pull a decorative lasso or samurai sword off the wall and go to work? I even had an elaborate notion of how he could bring along a stuntman to pose as a heckler, then do a couple moves on the guy and throw him through sugar glass. That would be one hell of a show.
I know because of stevenseagal.net that there are some crazy female fans whose Seagal fandom is purely about lust. But the internet is a worldwide medium. The question is how many of these women there really are in the world and how many are within driving distance of Seattle. I figured 1 or 2 tops, probaly none. But I figured wrong.
The show sold out, and there were people outside with signs begging for extra tickets. It was a mostly older crowd inside. Lots of grey hair, also lots of bald heads and tattoos. Some tough guys, some ponytails, some nerdy old guys in leather jackets. I wondered if anybody was a serious blues fan. Was anyone here to genuinely examine his chops? There was a pack of crew-cutted frat boys hooting in the back, some young hipster types here and there, possibly for ironic purposes, possibly for Seagalogical study. Probaly more men than women but not much, seemed like lots of husbands and wives. Mostly white people, but all races were represented. I noticed a decent percentage of Native Americans, and a woman wearing a fringed jacket with beadwork like Seagal wears in ON DEADLY GROUND. That made my day. I figured if there was ever a Seagalogy convention you’d be seeing alot of those.
I never been to this place, the Tractor Tavern. There are cowboy boots, some tractor tires and a few farming type tools decorating the place, lots of things that could become improvised weapons if a fight were to break out. Unfortunately there’s no pool table so we’re not gonna see the legendary pool balls in the napkin move from OUT FOR JUSTICE. This is Seattle, so the country theme is a put-on. It’s not an authentic tough joint but it is an approximation of a bar where a fight might occur in a Seagal picture. The bathroom is ridiculously narrow and has a piss trough instead of urinals. But there’s a sign on the wall that says “Be nice or leave,” and I was immediately struck by how nice everybody was. People apologizing for bumping into each other, letting ladies go first in line, bartenders replacing spilled drinks for free. I saw a woman trying to buy a ticket even though the show was long sold old. She said she had driven all the way from Oregon. The ticket girl thought about it for a moment, stamped the lady’s wrist and let her in.
This type of courtesy was also extended by the acts. The show time on the tickets was 8:00, which in Seattle usually means “doors at 8:30, endless shitty opening acts at 10ish.” For this show though the opening act started at 8:05. It was J.J. Gilmour, a likeable Scottish singer and guitar strummer. The crowd seemed to like him so it was sad later on to see him having to sell Seagal’s t-shirts.
Oh yeah if you’re going to this tour you should know that yes, there is merchandise. They got the new CD “Mojo Priest” by Steven Seagal & Thunderbox, and they got a t-shirt with the album cover on it (Seagal sitting on a porch playing an unplugged electric guitar). The shirt comes in grey or black and various sizes, both items cost a reasonable $15.
The band came out promptly and professionally at 9:05. Although they were advertised as “The Steven Seagal Blues Band,” some other dates on the tour call them Thunderbox, and I think Seagal called them “Memphis Thunderbox” at one point. Now, I have noticed before that Seagal is a white man, and I am not a particular fan of the white man’s blues. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Thunderbox is an all black, super fuckin tight young blues band. I vouch for these guys 100%. I’m no expert on the blues, I got “Electric Mud” and I like some Howlin’ Wolf and what not when I hear it. Also I’ve been sad before and I’m pretty broke right now. That’s the extent of my expertise. But I’m very confident in my claim that this band is topnotch.
Here’s how it lays out: 3 backup guitarists, the most noticeable being Bernard Allison (son of Luther Allison it turns out) because he has two rattlesnake heads on his hat. Then you got a drummer of course, a bass player, a guy on Hammond B-3 (really good) and two very attractive backup singers, one female one male. They jam for a minute and warm up the crowd and then somebody says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Steven Seagal” and the motherfucker climbs up on stage with a flying-V guitar and one of those shiny Asian numbers he loves, orange and sleeveless. He betrays no emotion as he strolls up and starts bluesin it up on the guitar. And the crowd goes fuckin NUTS. His opening salvos are choice but there’s no question, they are not cheering for the blues. They are cheering for Casey Ryback. They are cheering for Nico Toscani. They are cheering for the fucking ponytail.
I know because I was one of these people. How often do you get a chance to cheer for a dude you saw throwing people through windows in a couple dozen movies? I know my bud Telf over on the Ain’t It Cool talkbacks saw Bruce Willis on stage, but most people have not had that experience. You see them in movies, you don’t expect to ever see them in the same room as you. But there he is, towering over everybody else, squinting those eyes, looking exactly like always, except right there in front of me, in person. AND PLAYING A FUCKING GUITAR.
Another thing I wondered when I realized I had a chance to see Steven Seagal playing music was whether or not he would have guitar face. I don’t know if anybody else is as fascinated by this as me, but alot of guitarists make goofy faces while they play. They bob their head around and mouth the sounds they’re trying to make. Or sometimes they scrunch up like somebody just farted in their face. With somebody like Jimi or some of the traditional blues guys it might be cool. With alot of people, especially white people, it looks ridiculous. And when you are better known as a movie star, like say if you were Al Pacino or Patrick Stewart, you would look even funnier making guitar face. So this was an important question in my mind.
The answer is that Seagal has a very powerful and unique guitar face that is entirely contained within his brow. For most of his playing his face was completely motionless. His mouth just looked like a bracket tipped over. Like in his movies, his eyes were so narrow that you couldn’t tell if they were open or closed. But his eyebrows would tilt in and out of a concerned upside down V and he’d shake his head slightly side to side. This is an entirely respectable guitar face that in no way compromises his tough guy screen persona. In fact it emphasizes it, using my Theory of Badass Juxtaposition. Blues guitar is pretty manly so it’s not as strong of a juxtaposition as jazz piano (Clint Eastwood) but personally I believe any expressive art counts.
How good is Seagal? I would say he’s pretty good, definitely above expectations. With the extreme tightness of his band, I could tell he was a little sloppy on the guitar. At one point I thought one of the backup guitarists might have winced at his playing, but that was probaly my imagination. I don’t think his performance was embarassing at all. He could’ve gotten away with strumming and singing, but he took almost all of the solos. We’re not talking about memorizing some chords, he has to know the idiom of blues soloing in order to be able to play these songs, so I think he’s serious, not just going through a phase. He did well.
You might’ve heard some of his singing on his movies. It’s funny because you can tell it’s him. Like alot of blues I’m sure, the whole production sounds way better live than on CD, including the singing. I couldn’t make out all the lyrics, but he’s definitely following blues traditions more than putting his unique Seagalian spin on them. Alot of “Well I woke up this morning” and “I went to bed last night” and that kind of stuff. I noticed in one song he mentioned seeing Jesus and the Devil walking down a road together, which seemed like an unusual thing for a Buddhist lama to be singing about. But it’s an acceptable use of symbolism. One song they played turns out to be called “Talk To My Ass,” but the lyrics never say that as far as I can tell. Another one was called “Alligator Ass” because of the punchline at the end where he says he ordered some chicken but they gave him alligator ass. The bastards.
Every song or two a guy would come out and hand Seagal a different guitar. One of them had a snakeskin strap that looked like it had part of the head still on there. Despite that, Seagal’s presence was serious and humble, mostly expressionless but occasionally he would look at his bandmates and break into a wide, boyish smile. Some of the crowd were yelling things like “UNDER SIEGE!” but instead of getting mad he smiled and nodded and a couple times shook people’s hands. There was very little between songs banter (I would’ve liked a speech on alternative fuel resources) but he did go around and introduce the band, telling where they were from, what they did (this guy tours with Alicia Keys, this guy plays with “everyone from the Rolling Stone on down”), and invariably describing them as “amazing.” Bernard Allison for example is “The son of an amazing blues legend, and he himself is an amazing… blues legend.” After he’d introduced everybody in detail, almost as an afterthought he said, “Oh, and I’m Steven Seagal,” and the band busted immediately into the next song as the crowd went nuts again. Because it’s true, he was Steven Seagal.
The show was pretty short, just about an hour before the encore. But at least they didn’t wear out their welcome. The last song before the encore was “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” which he doesn’t have on the CD. I think it’s a traditional zydeco song, but they played it as funk, even throwing in a little “Fire!” from the Ohio Players. Now, I don’t know blues but I do know a thing or two about funk. I’ve seen James Brown a couple times, I’ve seen Parliament-Funkadelic, I’ve seen the other Parliament where they don’t have George Clinton but they have all the other original members. I’ve seen the Meters (without Zigaboo unfortunately), I’ve seen War. One time I saw the original JBs opening for James Brown – Bootsy, Fred Wesley and everybody. I saw Herbie Hancock’s reunion with the original Headhunters. I even saw Dolemite once. I’ve also seen shitty funk bands and you can tell when it’s bad. You do it wrong and it’s cheesy as hell. And you have to be tight or it doesn’t seem funky. Funk to me is what X-Men is to nerds, so believe me when I say that this was scorchin. The Hammond somehow sounded like a funky ass horn section, but distorted like a dusty old record from a low budget session. I couldn’t fuckin believe what I was experiencing here. The crowd was dancing. The band was burning up. And Steven Seagal was standing there in his orange shirt wailing away. What the fuck is this, is this a dream or is this real life? Did my love for OUT FOR JUSTICE and old school funk seriously just intersect right before my eyes?
I’m not lying people, this was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life. It was a genuinely entertaining concert, and every song got an explosive applause from the audience. There was never a point where the appreciation, or the novelty, or whatever you think it was, seemed to be wearing thin. Some of those crazy women were yelling “I love you Steven!” and dudes were yelling things about his movies, but with few exceptions I got the feeling these were sincere fans. Alot of them knew that it was funny what they were seeing but they were genuinely appreciative of Seagal. Now that I think of it it’s kind of a relief because these are the people I’m trying to write Seagalogy for. Now I know there are lots of them.
Now don’t get me wrong, if this great band had had some “amazing blues legend” as the leader instead of an aikido instructor turned movie star turned lama turned bluesman, you would’ve had some more all-around technically proficient and authentic blues. But it might not have been as good. Because the sight of a genuinely awesome band fronted by the guy from BELLY OF THE BEAST is surreal and beautiful. A once in a lifetime dream. I had that constant “this is too good to be true” feeling pretty much from start to finish.
As “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” was ending, Seagal left the stage, followed by the band, and the crowd chanted, “RYBACK! RYBACK! RYBACK!” until they came back for one more. After the encore, everybody had huge smiles threatening to break off of their faces. Most people were in too much of a daze to leave. Some people crowded at the corner of the stage hoping to catch another glimpse of Seagal. Sure enough he came out and shook some hands. Suddenly it threatened to turn into mayhem as people rushed the corner trying to get a piece of the action. After a few minutes Seagal climbed on stage and tried to find a live mic.
Holy shit, I thought. Is he gonna do it? Is he gonna make the speech from the end of ON DEADLY GROUND? Or maybe the sermon from FIRE DOWN BELOW? Is he gonna take questions? Instead he said that he was going to find a place to sign things and “spend some time with you.” This, of course, resulted in a burst of Beatlemania-esque hysteria.
Eventually Seagal was seated behind a little table and everyone tried to crush each other to get to him. This was when you really got a feel for the type of fandom you had attending the show. There were definitely obsessed women, including two feisty plus-sized ladies who had managed to score a sweaty hand towel Seagal had used. They explained that it was the one he used when he lifted up his ponytail and wiped the sweat off the back of his neck. They were honorable though so they found a man with a pocket-knife to cut it in half so they could each have a piece. There were plenty of admiring middle aged women who were not crazy, and some of them decided that an autograph was not worth being crushed and just left. Another one kept saying she was going to touch his hair.
I guess I’m not as much of a superfan as you’d think, because I didn’t bring a DVD to autograph or a camera. But I was amazed at the memorabilia that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Posters, huge blow up glossies, laser discs of OUT FOR JUSTICE and UNDER SIEGE. Some young Seagalogists were obviously amused by the whole thing but I was happy that they weren’t just being ironic. I heard discussions of INTO THE SUN and how PRINCE OF PISTOLS is gonna be about the blues. People were calling their friends to brag that they were ten feet away from Steven Seagal. “Oh my god, I can’t believe it, that’s Casey Ryback right there.” There was a real camaraderie here. Strangers crammed together, talking about their favorite Seagal movies, making jokes about the titles. Somehow word had spread throughout the neighborhood, so some kids were gathering outside begging to get in, but they didn’t have IDs.
Watching Seagal sign was almost as good as watching him play. He spoke quietly so you couldn’t tell what he was saying to people. But he would put on these little reading glasses (perhaps the same ones he uses to examine antique samurai swords for museums) and then he’d take them off to pose for pictures with people. For every picture he would assume his dead-eyed badass face. No smile at all. I saw people posing for what must’ve been some hilarious pictures – groups of college kids with gigantic smiles surrounding Seagal with the look of a stone cold killer on his face. (If any of these show up on the internet here let me know and I’ll link to them.)
Now, I haven’t met too many famous people or gotten too many books signed or anything, but when it happens I got a rule. Don’t assume you are the one cool guy who can relate to your hero and ask a question he hasn’t heard a million times before. Just be polite, say thank you or whatever. Make it simple. So when I got up to the front I just shook the man’s hand and said “Thank you very much, I’m a huge fan, it was a wonderful show.” Usually I’d probaly just say “thank you” but how often are you gonna meet Steven fucking Seagal? So I splurged and threw in that extra “wonderful” part.
I didn’t feel like I made a personal connection with the man. Not that he was unfriendly, but he’s been sitting there signing autographs for a bunch of crazy people, not sure who’s sincere and who’s gonna try to sell it on ebay. You can’t blame him for not seeming like he’s your best friend. I can’t even remember what he said back to me. I was probaly too busy wondering how the hell I was standing there shaking Steven Seagal’s hand to actually experience the moment.
As I walked away from the tavern I just started laughing at my luck. I’ve done well with this hand. It’s worked out pretty good for typing, it’s flipped off Dick Cheney to his face, and it’s shaken Steven Seagal’s hand. If I ever get horribly maimed, now I got another reason to hope it happens on the left side.
Some kind of jug band was playing on the sidewalk next to a hot dog stand. Other people were floating to their cars or bus stops powered by post-Seagal highs. That movie didn’t lie, life is beautiful. The problems of the world might go away if everybody could get a chance to see Steven Seagal with a flying-V. I figure no matter how down in the dumps you are, try to always live your life as if you might shake Steven Seagal’s hand later that night. Because who knows, you might.
As I got further away I began to run into people from the outside world, people who may not have even been aware that the star of THE GLIMMER MAN was sitting in a tavern nearby. And everybody I passed I had to fight the urge to say, “Excuse me, I just shook Steven Seagal’s hand.”
Nah, they wouldn’t understand. It’s something you have to live.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.