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Kickin' Blues Brother

Steven Seagal in Atlantic City. "I've played with the best of the best," he says, "and made a lot of people happy." His tour stops at the Birchmere tonight. (Koichi Kamoshida - Getty Images)

Seagal the bluesman is now trying to gain converts in concert on a month-long U.S. tour that stops tonight at the Birchmere. Fronting an eight-piece band, Thunderbox, whose shifting lineup includes guitarist Bernard Allison, son of the late great Luther Allison, Seagal is performing nightly in front of crowds comprising movie fans, martial-arts nuts and skeptical musicians and blues fans.

And he seems to be winning them over. Even the members of Aretha Franklin's band who sneaked in a side door after their concert in an adjacent theater roared their approval at the end of Seagal's set. (Earlier, Seagal had introduced Franklin on the House of Blues main stage at her camp's behest.)

"Every single place we've played, we've burned the house down," Seagal says in that same smoldering low murmur of a voice that starred, along with his high-flying feet and hard-chopping hands, in such late-'80s and early-'90s action-flick hits as "Above the Law," "Hard to Kill," "Out for Justice" and "Marked for Death." (His more recent output has been less successful, save for 2001's "Exit Wounds," in which he was featured opposite the rapper DMX.)

"People are surprised because they just know Steven as an actor," says Miles Copeland, the music-biz veteran who shepherded the Police to international stardom and is now managing Seagal's music career. "But I'm telling you, the guy can play an instrument and he's actually really good at it. That separates him from almost all of the actors who want to make a music career. And he's serious about it.

"I told him he'd have to play these grungy clubs and some real [dives] where real blues musicians would play, and he said: 'Let's do it!' He's focused on making it as a musician. He's paying his dues, just like everybody else."

Truth be told, however, Seagal isn't exactly suffering for his art: When he has to fly to a gig, he travels by chartered jet, and he also stays in expensive hotel suites, Copeland says.

"The spending isn't in line because on one end, he's a superstar, and on the other end, he's trying to establish himself. So he's playing these dinky little places. But you can't get the guy to fly economy and stay in a one-star hotel. He's just not going to do it. So we're in the presidential suite in every hotel and we're playing a 300-seat club! Let's put it this way: He's not making any money on this tour. But we have to prove to people that he can tour and that he can play."

He has already convinced blues veterans like Hubert Sumlin, a revered guitarist who played on some of Howlin' Wolf's great 1960s Chess Records sides -- including "Wang Dang Doodle," "Shake for Me" and "300 Pounds of Joy."

"Man, I couldn't believe it until I heard it," Sumlin says in a phone interview. "But he's for real, man. People are going to see that he got it. . . . I told him, just brush up on your singing. That's all. But the guy got it. Man, I'm 74 years old, and I've been out here a long time. I done heard everybody I wanted to hear. And I'm sure he can play."

Margolin, a guitarist and singer who played in Muddy Waters's band, says in an e-mail from a tour stop in Switzerland that he hasn't heard "Mojo Priest" yet. But Seagal acquitted himself in the recording sessions, Margolin writes: "From what little I heard, he sounded good."

Seagal assesses his playing -- a fingerpicking style that seems to owe a lot to both Albert Collins and Albert King -- this way:

"I'll say I'm an average guitar player, and some people like the way I play. Let's put it this way: I've played with the best of the best and made a lot of people happy. So I must be doing something right."

Seagal has apparently been befriending blues musicians for years -- dating, he says, back to his childhood in Michigan, where he claims to have learned in the laps of great but unknown Mississippi Delta bluesmen who'd moved north to work in the steel mills. Whether this is true is unclear; a 1990 People magazine story quoted Seagal's mother as saying the family moved to Southern California when he was 5.

Could it be another bit of myth-building? In 1988, when his edgy-man-of-mystery public image was being perfected at the outset of his career, Seagal suggested to the Los Angeles Times that he'd previously worked for the government as a spook -- a claim that was refuted in various published expos?s. (The actor eventually told Larry King on CNN: "I am publicly denying having ever worked for the CIA.") Over the years, there have been questions, too, about the details of Seagal's martial-arts training and teaching in Japan and so forth.

Whatever. As an adult, Seagal has collected bluesmen friends and teachers almost as obsessively as he's collected guitars and guns, and he casually peppers conversation with references to his relationships with some of the greats. As in: "I remember talking to B.B. King once" and "my boy Taj Mahal" and "Bo Diddley is a dear friend of mine." (In the Big City Blues piece, Diddley says of Seagal, "I think I've found me a new good buddy.")

Seagal even says Sumlin "is like a father to me." And, in fact, Sumlin will be just that in "Prince of Pistols," a movie scheduled to begin shooting next month in New Orleans, with Sumlin, who is black, playing the father of Seagal, who is white but seems to have picked up the patois of an old black man from the South.

"Hubert has said some things to me that can make you cry; he's like a holy man to me," says the famously spiritual Seagal, a student of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist philosophies who was once, controversially, proclaimed to be the reincarnation of a revered Buddhist lama. "If you saw Hubert in India or Tibet, you'd walk up and do prostrations."

They didn't fall prostrate in Atlantic City when Seagal took the stage. But at least he got an ovation in his latest incarnation, prompting Seagal to shout, " That's what I'm talkin' 'bout."

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