By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Steven Seagal is surrounded, and somebody's flashing a gun. Uh-oh .
Bring on the carnage and the mayhem and, just maybe, one of those epic post-brawl soliloquies in which the rock-'em, sock-'em action hero preaches about the environment as the bloodied bad guys limp away!
Okay, maybe not. Wrong scene, wrong script, wrong medium.
It's just past midnight at the House of Blues' Harlem Ballroom, and Seagal has been backed into a corner by the good guys: About a hundred autograph-seeking fans, one of whom has peeled back his shirtsleeve to flex his gun of a biceps in the hopes that the ponytailed martial-arts master, movie star and, of late, Muddy Waters wannabe will sign the arm with a Sharpie.
Seagal manages a smirk, then scribbles his name on the guy's skin. Next!
"I watch your movies every day," another fan says. Seagal nods, then signs the man's ticket stub.
Slumping behind a folding table, the 55-year-old actor appears exhausted and a bit irritable -- perhaps because he slept only an hour the night before, then spent half the day stuck in traffic en route from a gig in Hagerstown before getting onstage to lead his touring band through nearly two hours of high-octane blues. He pounds the table with his left hand, which is roughly the size of a bear paw. He exhales. He looks at his watch. The line keeps moving.
"Your movies inspired me to go into martial arts," says another fan. Seagal nods again and signs again, this time writing his name on the cover of an "Under Siege" DVD.
"Is there going to be an 'Under Siege 3'?" ("I hope so," Seagal says softly. Scribbles on an 8-by-10 photo.)
"You're awesome! When's your next movie going to be in theaters?" ("Probably next year." T-shirt. Keep moving, please.)
"Steven, I love your music ."
Suddenly, Seagal looks up. His posture has changed. So has his disposition. "You enjoyed the show?" he says, smiling.
"That was impressive," the fan says. "You can really play, man. Keep on doing it."
"Thank you, brother!" Seagal says as he signs a copy of his new blues CD, "Mojo Priest." He shakes the man's hand, thanks him again, then expresses his elation over the whole evening, saying: " LawdhaveMERCY !"
If you really want to get Steven Seagal going, tell him he's no Russell Crowe -- or, for that matter, Don Johnson, Kevin Bacon or Keanu Reeves.
Don't worry; your solar plexus will remain intact.
"I've been playing music since I was a boy," Seagal says. "I'm a musician, man. This is what I do. I got a little bit of pride about the blues. I'm not like these actors who can't play."
This, of course, is what we've come to the House of Blues to discern.
Just as many musicians apparently want to be actors, many actors want to be musicians. And most of them can't play the part credibly.
But Seagal is out to prove he's no dilettante -- that as a singer, songwriter and guitarist he is serious about the craft, and that he knows his way around a fret board and a 12-bar blues. In short, that he's not Bruce Willis.
Last month, Seagal released "Mojo Priest," which features both blues classics ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "Dust My Broom") as well as his own compositions, including "Talk to My [Rear End]." The songs are performed by Seagal along with a lineup that includes blues luminaries Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Hubert Sumlin.
Big City Blues magazine, which put Seagal on the cover of its current issue, called his guitar work "exceptional" and Seagal himself "a natural -- a very talented musician." Amazon.com's review is less effusive, calling the CD a "well-intentioned star vehicle" but cautioning that "neither Seagal's whispery/raspy vocals or hotshot guitar solos are particularly memorable . . . Lovers of deep blues won't find much of interest here."
"Mojo Priest" is Seagal's second album, after last year's "Songs From the Crystal Cave," with its reggae dancehall and Indian instrumental flourishes. That CD, which features Stevie Wonder and members of Bob Marley's Wailers, was never released stateside, though Seagal says it's better than "Mojo Priest."
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."