The Aussie bluesman brings back the addictive rhythms of a bustling 1920s New Orleans saloon
A singer steps up onto the stage dressed in crumpled white trousers and shirt fetchingly set off with a red bow-tie. His hair brylcreemed and slicked back, with a disarmingly child-like face. His band – dressed in black – begin to play. The drums, trombone, trumpet and stand-up bass join the frontman who plucks a tune on a tenor banjo, that he later claims has been used as both a baseball bat and an oar in its time.
Then comes a voice that sounds like it's coming from a gramophone horn rather than any modern microphone. This is CW Stoneking and his Primitive Horn Orchestra. You ask yourself: ‘is he for real?’ The question is answered by the end of the first song: who cares!
CW Stoneking’s real story is interesting. Born in Australia to American parents (his father, Billy Marshall Stoneking, is an author and screenwriter of TV shows including Mission Impossible), Stoneking was brought up in the Aboriginal community of Papunya (Pop. 299). As a young teen he fell in love with the music of the early 20th century and began performing – first as a solo artist then with his band The Blue Tits – around the many outback bars of Australia. He released his debut solo album King Hokum in 2006 (due to get a UK release in March this year), which led to tours of America and Europe. His reputation grew with the release of Jungle Blues in 2009.
But what we get on stage and on record is not the hard-working musician who has worked his way to growing acclaim. What we get is an ingenious mix of fact, fiction and fantasy set to the addictive rhythms of 1920s calypso music, country blues and New Orleans jazz.
From the doleful blues of ‘Handyman Blues’, to a raucous rendition of calypso king Wilmouth Houdini’s ‘Brave Son of America’, Stoneking and his band make music both old-time and timeless, delighting the audience in the Black Box with consummate ease.
And it’s not just the music that’s a hit with the crowd. Like another purveyor of timeless tunes, Tom Waits, Stoneking is a masterful teller of tall-tales laced with bone dry wit. 'I used to be a ventriloquist,' he claims. 'It’s why I still don’t move my mouth much when I speak.'
With his tight-lipped drawl, Stoneking prefaces his songs with stories about how Jimmie Rodgers, King of the Blue Yodel, became an African fertility god; how he survived a shipwreck off the coast of West Africa, and how a Canadian friend ('You could tell he was Canadian because his head didn’t meet in the middle') ended up busking in a see-through yellow dress outside a cemetery in New Orleans after adventures involving fortune tellers and Dildo farms (don’t ask), which had the audience both applauding and cackling into their beers. Stoneking then changes tack and quiets the room with a stark solo rendition of ‘Don’t Go Dancin’ Down the Darktown Strutter’s Ball.’
With the band in full flow, Stoneking closes with ‘The Love Me or Die’ from Jungle Blues. And then he is gone. The crowd give him a standing ovation. He doesn’t look back, strolling on into the mist of ages past, his future still in front of him.