Seagal Sings the BluesIncreasingly frustrated by his film career, Steven Seagal has often sought solace in his music. An avid fan of Delta Blues since his early years in Detroit, Michigan, the martial arts teacher turned overnight screen icon has been honing his skills with the guitar over many years -- in addition to building a vast personal collection of instruments. Throughout his tenure as a box office heavyweight, Seagal made numerous musical contributions to his films. Marked For Death, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and The Glimmer Man all include tracks on which fans would have noticed the star is credited with either performing on, producing and/or writing. Then came the infamous Fire Down Below. Marrying conventional thrills with environmental themes close to his heart, the film paid homage to the country music at the heart of America’s history. Co-writing and performing on many of the songs in the film, Seagal, who was heavily involved in all aspects of production, surrounded himself with fellow musician/actors such as Levon Helm, Randy Travis, Kris Kristofferson and Harry Dean Stanton. One scene even sees the tall guy picking up a guitar to jam with Marty Stuart. That the film was the final nail in the coffin of Seagal’s career as a cinema star (going straight to video in the UK) marks this as a tragic turning point in his career. Its legacy is passionless, exploitation films and the emergence of two very unique albums by the star. In Internet critiques, fans have shown significant dissatisfaction with Seagal’s recent films. But they may be surprised to learn that the star shares their sentiment. While able to place his unique mark on films such as Belly of the Beast and Into The Sun, all too often his producers seek to keep things simple… much to the star’s frustration. Producers even sought to sue the star for his interference on Today You Die and Mercenary for Justice, citing interference with scripts and movie crews. The star counter-sued citing the producers’ breach of contract. Bad experiences on films such as these and Ticker, which he described as a film “raped” by investors (he has never even viewed the final cut of Albert Pyun’s cop thriller), Seagal feels exploited and his performances have no passion as consequence. Speaking from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in December 2006, while filming Once Upon a Time in the Hood, the 55-year-old Aikido master expresses nothing but disdain for his latest Direct-to-DVD production. Describing the film as merely something “the producer wanted to do” this is another project devoid of the themes which inspire him, such as spirituality. It would seem Hood is to be yet another formula revenge thriller cynically marketed to the hip-hop lovers who flocked to Exit Wounds. Seemingly involved in the project wholly under duress, it seemed clear that the film was little more than a contractual obligation. Nothing to feel passion for or to excite fans. When asked if he’s under contract with Sony Home Entertainment, the company backing these recent DVD releases (all seeming to feature the same cut and pasted head shot), his bluntly economical reply is “not after this.” It’s not difficult to recognize what is now a typical Seagal film. While the extensive use of doubles is clearly resultant of the star’s own aging, the employ of alternative actors for looping dialogue is rather more telling. You can almost guarantee that Hood, if that is to be the final release title, will feature this telltale sign of Seagal’s distaste. With Today You Die’s hip-hop buddy formula, recycled footage -- and scenes which hint of confusing, undeveloped spiritual overtones -- is sadly not an isolated example of poor film making. The more recent Attack Force’s flawed, post-production attempt to remove its science fiction elements (a genre stretch for Seagal), and dubbed in many scenes he’s notably absent from during much of the running time. Seagal’s name is now, unfortunately, synonymous with some of the worst productions in the genre. Is it any surprise then that it should be discovered that his next release Flight of Fury should have been exposed as an unofficial remake of a forgotten Michael Dudikoff flick called Black Thunder? Comments on the IMDB confirm that even the writer of the original screenplay was unaware of this until a fan noticed similarities in the synopsis. Filming Belly of the Beast, his music video “Girl It’s Alright,” in Thailand, and Into the Sun in Japan were all recent highlights for a star who more often finds himself strutting around Eastern Europe. But when probed regarding his curious forays into the cinema of the East…things don’t seem to inspire much enthusiasm in the tight-lipped star. Mention of Jun Lee’s South Korean film Clementine, an uneven blend of family drama martial arts, provokes more grievous feelings. It seems every mention of his film career arouses feelings of betrayal and contempt. “It was supposed to be a little cameo, and I was misled. They told me it wouldn’t be released outside of (South) Korea”. Subsequently the film exploited Seagal’s star presence. Unfortunately, Seagal’s efforts to produce films in China also fell on hard times. He served as Executive Producer on Sammo Hung’s Dragon Squad, which was to be the first in a string of Eastern productions. But the demise of his business partner (heart attack) led to the collapse of numerous projects -- and he hasn’t even seen that particular film. Unsettling patterns in the life of a man whose role in a mobile phone advert would seem to be a recent career highlight. Films once so full of vigour, such as On Deadly Ground and Fire Down Below, may be a thing of the past -- but while weary of the “beyond vulgar” producers and executives in Hollywood, Seagal is still a very passionate individual and fans need lament no more. Seagal is reinventing himself as a musician. Largely unheard outside Europe and the bedrooms of obsessive fans, “Songs from the Crystal Cave” is a blending of traditional ballads, blues, reggae and world music styles. Further expressing Seagal’s ambition to change the world, “Crystal Cave” was also chance for this man of so few words to vent his frustrations about the media, his refusal to compromise (as his films pay testament), his spiritual beliefs and more. Momentum for the album gathered back in 2001, when Wyclef Jean was linked to the project. But it was 2004 by the time the CD hit shelves…in France. “Making the record was easy. Finding distribution was hard,” the aspiring music performer says. Not surprisingly. It’s a unique collection of tracks likely to provoke guffaws as well as awe. Who could take Steven Seagal seriously singing reggae? European audiences embraced the album and critics began to take notice of the much-lambasted icon. "Crystal Cave" is an album bursting with passion and its modest success drove Seagal onward. Only two years later came the follow-up, "Mojo Priest" – a restrained and intense Blues album. This markedly different record further bolstered Seagal’s reputation. With successful promotional tours adding fuel to the fire, promoters eventually went so far as to postpone the UK leg due to demand. Originally scheduled to arrive in the UK last year, Seagal and his band Thunderbox have finally hit the UK and Europe. “Honoured” to have the opportunity to share the music dearest to his heart -- the tour is characteristically bold. Curious audiences, largely unfamiliar with his musical aspirations, paid £28.50 (a £10 mark up on those for the original dates in 2006) to see this relative musical newcomer. [roughly $57.00 U.S.] Genre luminaries like Bo Diddley and Ruth Brown appeared on the album. Brown, known as Miss Rhythm, came out of retirement to record two tracks with Seagal because she and others were “aware I was going to make an authentic blues album; not a rock album with a blues feel.” Saddened by Brown’s passing in November 2006, Seagal reflected that the feelings of working with this frail legend, whose arm he held as she left the studio, were “indescribable.” Her incredible vocals defied her age, and her contribution to Mojo Priest enhances the record’s sense of tribute. At a time when many of the original performers of the Blues are passing on, Seagal feels it’s very important to keep that raw sound alive. The sounds of suffering and slavery and the rhythms that gave African Americans hope. Integral to American history and culture, Seagal likens the music to a language in danger of being lost. “How important is it to keep speaking the Tibetan language to keep that alive?” he says rhetorically by way of contrast. Classics of the Delta Blues and Chicago Blues, popularised by Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers, feature on "Mojo Priest" to enhance ties to the founding fathers of this influential form. “We had Muddy Waters’ band and we did those tracks to show honour and respect to them.” Blending those classics with new material written by the man himself, the result is a seamless homage. Invigorating and wholly unique. Unlike performers such as David Hasselhoff, who relentlessly chase mainstream pop success, Steven Seagal’s commitment to a niche genre and his proficiency in it may well reinvigorate his flagging career. Avoiding William Shatner kitsch,Seagal’s aspirations follow in the wake of On Deadly Ground co-star Billy Bob Thornton’s success. Thornton has already built a loyal following for his Hillbilly country music, and it’s possible to see the potential for a very similar cult to develop. While constantly in demand (churning out three pictures a year), when asked if he would give up movies to focus on his music his answer is a simple “Yes”. Qualifying that if he could afford it there is no doubt that he’d love to become a full-time musical performer. “Knock on wood, I’ve never had a bad experience” he says of playing before a live audience -- something he’s done consistently for many years, even doing a mini-tour to promote Fire Down Below. Playing since he was a young boy, and writing his own Blues material since around the mid-eighties, Mojo Priest’s success is a dream come true for the star. But sadness plagues the man. He confided that the failure to make the final nominations list for the Grammy Awards upset him. Again, he puts this down to failures in management to “…support the record and get it out there.” Asked if there are other genres of music he’d like to explore, Seagal states that while he’d “...like to do more World Music…to continue with the blues, and hopefully get another record out soon.” Renewing the faith of fans that felt their hero had become a shadow man with the belly of a beast, it would seem that the enigmatic, intense and soft-spoken star is embarking on the most exciting phase of his career. And despite evidence to the contrary, Seagal confirms he still has many filmmaking aspirations. “I have a great love for the medium of film,” he says, but the corrupting influence of money is a constant frustration. While fans may continue to endure DVD schlock, Seagal hopes to soon combine his passion for music in a project which echoes Fire Down Below. The Delta Blues actioner Prince of Pistols was originally set to begin filming in July 2006, but is currently on hold. The film is still very much on Seagal’s mind -- as is the eternally gestating biopic of Ghengis Khan. Far from being half past dead, Steven Seagal is under siege from British and European fans who adore this foreigner. Like his eternally mysterious on screen alter ego, this is a man who refutes criticisms and follows his heart. Submerged in a passion for the Blues, he’s going beyond a black dawn and into the sun. Proving that no aspiration is out of reach.