When C.W. Stoneking walks into a room, you know about it. There’s a presence, yes, but it’s the look that strikes you the most.
Maritime-esque in a full white suit ensemble, navy bowtie and slick, side-shaven Brylcreem hair, Stoneking looked like he had accidentally time travelled in from the 1920s. Pale and baby-faced, his big blue eyes looked out from under fair lashes and swept the crowd, crinkling in the corners at the roar of a sold-out Thornbury Theatre.
Strapping on his beloved banjo for a brief nostalgia trip, he opened with an oldie but a goodie, ‘Early In The Mornin’’. His nimble and heavily tattooed fingers caressed the high-action strings, adorned with chunky silver skull and signet rings. Then, the big band unleashed on us all – hallelujah brother! With two Primitive Horn Orchestra members on one side, and four backing singers on the other, the stage was swamped in an exotic jazz sound. Veteran performers Vika and Linda Bull sandwiched their two younger counterparts (Paul Kelly’s daughters Memphis and Maddie Kelly) on the left, matching in outfit and choreography.
Stoneking’s latest album, Gon’ Boogaloo, provided most of the setlist, and we were in for a treat early with opener ‘How Long’, and its energetic cousin ‘The Zombie’. “Are you ready?” Stoneking called out in his Southern soaked tongue over the velvety strums of his golder than gold Fender Jazzmaster, and the backing girls responded “yes!” and screamed with childish fervour. We got our hypnotised sway on early, before the primitive pop beat of ‘Get on the Floor’ took the volume up another notch.
Stoneking stood tall behind the mic, sweating up a storm under the hot coloured lights, and his growl-like croon crackled through the sound system. The voodoo groove of ‘Jungle Blues’ came delightfully early, and the three-piece brass band section swelled and swooned over his calypso calls of Mississippi shipwrecks and thunderous seas.
Stoneking’s croaky between song banter quickly became almost as popular as the songs themselves. Completely in character – sometimes bewilderingly so – he mumbled quips about banjo beating a man to death in the jungle and singing a duet for one. Introducing his songs as “toons” (tunes) off the new “rekkid” (record), the metallic silver finish of his iconic 1931 National Duolian guitar (most recognised on the cover of his first studio album, King Hokum and dubbed ‘Old Roy’), got its fair share of stage time in the new ballads.
‘The Jungle Swing’ got us into the, well, jungle swing of things once more. The pre-War blues tunes got everyone up and about throughout, especially a heavy sideburn sporting gentleman to my left who just wouldn’t stop rockin’. I said can I get an Amen?
‘Mama Got The Blues’ and ‘Good Luck Charm’ saw the backing band get a well earned break, and Stoneking serenaded solo for a while. The hilarious and poetic ‘Talkin Lion Blues’ had everyone hanging on his every line. Yodelling intermittently, his eyes darted from side to side for comic effect and it worked. Every darn time. From punching a lion in the eye to being sentenced to jail by a monkey judge, Stoneking soared over his finger-picking melody. “Look at that big white valley I’m skiing down”, he chuckled – mid yodel.
The Bull and Kelly sisters cooed on ‘Tomorrow Gon’ Be Too Late’, and oohed to the minor key shifts and country dancing swing of ‘We Gon’ Boogaloo’. The inevitable encore was a generous three song spread of two classic covers, before finishing on a stunning and swaying sing-along, ‘Jailhouse Blues’.
Stoneking’s music has an other-worldly charm about it. From feel-good and barnstorming to stripped back and meaningful, C.W. Stoneking proved that having the blues isn’t necessarily a bad thing…