As soon as C. W. Stoneking started singing alone on stage with his guitar, the entire mythology of the south filled up the Troubadour, a deep bluesy sound populated by authentic characters and stories told in raucous nasal vocals.
Josh Homme was first rumored to be the very special and unannounced opener of the show – Stoneking collaborated with Homme for a Christmas Charity duet of “Silent Night’ in 2018 – but Gaby Moreno showed up instead of the Queens of the Stone Age frontman. The Guatemala-born singer-songwriter shined with her poignant and lovely songs, effortlessly mixing gorgeous dramas (‘The Weed Smoker’s Dream’) and Spanish waltzes (‘Illusion’). Between a superb cover of ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’ and a classic ‘Nobody to Love’, the timeless quality of her multi-influenced music, often described as Spanglish folk-soul, was the perfect opener of the night, while she navigated around nuances, a Spanish guitar, and emotional vocals.
C.W. Stoneking is a true character, an Australian singer-songwriter now settled in Nashville, abundantly joking between songs and spreading his deep love for the American south blues. At the age of 11, he picked up his first guitar and fell in love with pre-war American blues, including Texas blues of the ‘50s or even earlier music from ’20s and ’30s blues artists. Songs like ‘How Long’ or ‘Charley Bostock Blues’ had the authentic feel of some muddy Mississippi blues sung by a black man, while Stoneking, a white man from Australia, was singing with this howl, a hundred-year-old howl, rising high above old-timey tunes that sounded like the originals.
But he was far from being a one-trick pony stuck on blues nostalgia, there were plenty of variations in his guitar, while the funny stories abounded during songs – ‘She’s a bread baker/Boys n’ I can’t help myself/She got one loaf in the oven/One coolin’ on the shelf’ – and between the songs, ‘I don’t only write about the jungle,’ he said after one of his famous Jungle songs, while he released a full album of them, ‘Jungle Blues’ in 2008. Stoneking is not only the king of the jungle but also the king of Hokum, a humorous blues genre with sexual innuendoes composed for vaudeville shows in the 1920s and ‘30s, and he naturally called his own label, King Hokum.
‘It’s like church on Thursday,’ screamed someone in the audience. The crowd was laughing each time Stoneking would tell a story with his thick nasal ‘Sling-Blade’ accent, he seemed to be in full character from start to finish, but was he? However, one thing seemed evident, if he was a skillful entertainer, nothing in his retro music sounded old-fashioned, none of his songs appeared like a blasé copy of old records. It was actually just the opposite.
Mimicking drums and trumpet during the intro of ‘I Heard the Marchin’ of the Drum’, or ‘Handyman Blues’, his powerful vocals were often taking some full Tom Waits accents, accomplishing alone that sort of full rumbling circus so familiar on Waits’ album, while the notes of the songs were going in all directions before getting back together. If there was some yodeling on ‘Dodo Blues’, and even more during ‘Talkin’ Lion Blues’, a funny tale about speaking with animals, the slow ‘Way Out In the World’ was accompanied by a throbbing chant that almost resembled a traditional African chant. There was something in the tonal quality of his rootsy style that could have even found some origins in his childhood spent with his father in the Aboriginal community of Papunya.
‘I never knew there was such a thing than a murder ballad until I met Nick Cave,’ he said before ‘The Love Me or Die’… ‘What’s the heck is a murder ballad? I know it comes from England but there is a motivation in this shit! I had to write my own murder ballad’, he continued before singing the song about a hoodoo charm and the death of a beauty queen.
From the long howl of ‘The Thing I Done’, to the almost Django jazz-inspirations of some songs, the sweet Hawaiian guitar island of ‘Goin’ Back South’ overcome by a loud drunken croon, Stoneking was showcasing all his savant sonic talents, adding one variation after the next. There also was the Dixieland handclap of ‘Good Luck Charm’, the Louis Prima Jungle-book-theme of ‘The Zombie’, the bravado of ‘I’m The Jungle Man’ and its shades of Latin Boogaloo, Stoneking appeared very happy to delight the crowd with his abundance of influences, while telling us that the sea reverie of ‘On a Desert Isle’ was originally commissioned for an ice cream commercial: they wanted a 29-second jingle but he gave them a 6-minute song, so he got the song back but kept some sweet ‘ice-cream motifs’. The authenticity he was putting in his stories was making everyone laugh, and he revealed unexpected inspirations when he told us that his song ‘Jungle Blues’, another jungle-theme rumbling tune, got its start from listening to the riff of a 50 Cent song.
The crowd was truly captivated by this storyteller, and as the night progressed, beers helping, a man just in front of the mic was doing a drunken singing-along while ‘We Gon’ Boogaloo’ got everyone moving and C.W. crooned through the end of the night with ‘Jungle Lullaby.’
For most of his songs, the stories resonated like black and white movies populated by beautiful women, cartoon jungles, voodoo magic, and wild animals, over an inventive cocktail of delta blues, country, Hokum, Boogaloo, Dixieland, …. No wonder Jack White has featured him on his 2018 album ‘Boarding House Reach’ for the spoken word piece ‘Abulia and Akrasia’. C. W. Stoneking’s primitive sonic aesthetic could be an archaeologic digging into American music origins, but it never sounded forced and contrived, although it was difficult to say if the audience preferred his distorted steel guitar, his powerhouse croon or his hilarious storytelling between songs.
Setlist (C.W. Stoneking At The Troubadour)
Charley Bostock Blues
Goin the Country
She’s a Bread Baker
I Heard the Marchin’ of the Drum
Way Out In The World
The Love Me or Die
The Thing I Done
Mama Got the Blues
Goin’ Back South
Good Luck Charm
On a Desert Isle
I’m the Jungle Man
Talkin’ Lion Blues
We Gon’ Boogaloo
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