There’s a guy passed out at the corner of the Attic Bar in Hamtramck. Including him, there are four customers, one bartender and one cigarette-smoking, acoustic guitar-abusing man who’s sitting up on stage.
A single bulb burns behind the silhouette of the guitar man. A closer look reveals the hot ember of a burning butt growing brighter each time the figure heaves. A string breaks, but the sound coming from the man and his five-stringed appendage does not. After two more rounds of lyrics coated with years of nicotine abuse have soaked into the Attic’s humid walls, the music stops. The man asserts that the guitarcide he has just committed was a B.B. King cover.
Ears trained in the idiom of blues would say it sounded a bit more like Lightnin’ Hopkins. Those who have spent any significant time in Greektown would recognize it as the signature of Steve the Travelin’ Blues Man, who has been entertaining passers-by at the corner of Monroe and St. Antoine since he arrived in Detroit in 1993.
Busking is Steve’s main source of income. As a young man he was able to hold jobs, even well-salaried positions, but he gave up all of them in favor of busking.
"At no point in my life have I been happier than when I’m with my peoples out in Greektown," he says.
Though some may equate busking with homelessness, Steve’s occupation serves him well. He lives in a flat just north of Eastern Market. He says his street-performance post, near Greektown Casino, exposes him to suburban tourists and the occasional generous big winner.
Steve’s decade-long gig in Detroit is an anomaly. As his nom de blues suggests, he has seldom been rooted in any one place. Originally from Seattle, his father, an Army sergeant, moved the family along the West Coast from post to post. The family lived for a time in Germany. At age 5, before Steve had heard a note of American blues, he took his first music lessons from a classically trained German orchestra teacher. This teacher taught Steve what he describes as proper guitar chords and a little music theory. At 19, Steve left his parents home and moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and from there, "back to where I was from," the United States.
He migrated to Cleveland, where he discovered his affinity for the blues. A blues man named William Baker introduced Steve to the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson and B.B. King.
"I learned it’s the touch that matters. All the masters have a certain touch that identifies them as they selves," says Steve from behind a glass of cheap red wine.
Steve’s touch is unique. His fingers are heavily callused; his sound is percussive. His instrument is like an amplifier that lends volume to the sound of Steve himself.
"I would say my music is orchestral. By that I mean it’s full, it sounds like a full band," says Steve. It’s true — some bands don’t fill a room the way that Steve can.
And he can fill it with just about anything. Mr. B.’s in Royal Oak, with its ultra-zip-bang Internet-connected jukebox, might be the only other music source capable of fulfilling so many different requests. Want Willie Nelson? How about Jimi Hendrix? Wes Montgomery? Jack Scott? Flamenco? Jackie Wilson or Howlin’ Wolf? Steve, in his own way, plays them all. He will also perform some originals, usually under his other incarnation, the Emperor of Soul.
And the Emperor of Soul can move asses. Steve’s whole body acts as a giant metronome, keeping time. His eyes roll back, his fingers surgically extract notes from the guitar’s neck, and his genuine personality comes through as clearly as the music.
Some might view his sets as predictable. Steve calls it "actin’ the fool," or "commercialism." It’s sad and strange. People more familiar with Memphis Smoke than with Mississippi hill country passion expect certain songs and behaviors. Ask Steve to cover Stevie Ray Vaughan and he will, for a dollar, happily oblige. And, while young white kids like Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepard and Derek Trucks flaunt major-label contracts playing the "blues," talented and exciting blues veterans have few places to turn for recording deals. Steve admits he succumbs to the pressure to "act the fool."
But, in front of the right audience, Steve’s ability to shape the room with no more than his voice and his guitar can be awe inspiring.
"Producers follow me around and a few of them have told me that they will only record me when I get older." Steve, 47, doesn’t quite fit the marketing scheme of "poor old Nigro playin’ the blues for you, suh."
Wearing a Jam Master Jay T-shirt that asks, "Isn’t it time for a change?" Steve says, "I only got a few years left around here maybe. Everybody gotta get in where they fit in. Hell, I like hip hop — I’ll go to New York and play with them rappers."
Steve the Travelin’ Rap Star? Maybe ...Adam Stanfel is a freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]