A full moon loomed over The Tuning Fork last night as C.W Stoneking took to the stage with his raw, earthy Neo-blues that ought to bellow from the deepest jungle. Supported by local Arthur Ahbez, the bland, concrete enclosure of Spark Arena fell under the deathly charm of the Australian singer-songwriter.
Seeing Arthur Ahbez supporting Steve Gunn last year, I was anticipating his falsetto-ish voice that clings to the higher register with that delightful whine he is known for. He played a bunch of originals from his Volume II album alongside a cover of Railroad Bill by Ramblin Jack Elliott. The set was greeted with welcoming arms by an acoustic loving audience... although it was near identical to the last time I saw him even engaging the crowd with the same lines.
Expecting to see him with the complete band from his records, Stoneking sat lonely and centre stage, with a dark blue aura from the surrounding lights that lingered throughout the performance. Wearing a white cotton shirt, his aesthetic reminded me of a rougher Indiana Jones, draped in jewellery he had just obtain from an old Aztec temple in the Amazon and tattoos of his four children etched onto his hands. After introducing himself with a blues number, the Hokum King – which is the title of his first album – confidently addressed the crowd with a story in the form of Goin’ The Country.
“This is a duet we came up, talking about me, and the other guy who is myself… sounded like this song, cos it’s what it is…”
Storytelling is an art that Stoneking has mastered with a unique use of guitar technique and microphone placement. Playing the part of two, or more characters/instruments he turns his vocals/chanting from side to side, back and forth, creating a conversation that is so convincing it was often a surprise seeing only one man up on stage. Laughs bellowed from the audience last night as people rose and his gravity drew people into to an inquisitive lean that pricked the ears.
Inspired by Mississippi blues legend Tommy McClennan, She’s A Bread Baker relentlessly slams into the familiar bluesy walk that gets the foot tapping. Close to a century after their original releases, it's rare to hear such a sound so genuine again, especially here in Auckland at The Tuning Fork. This track is a testament to the blues still being alive and well, however rare and often lost in our mainstream music culture.
This sound scratches that itchy part of your brain. The rusty, almost menacing quality of Stoneking’s gravely but beautiful vocal registers melded into the rich, antique tones of his 30s/40s Gibson L7 transporting you onto the back porch of a Northern Territory bungalow in rural Australia. It is as if the blues had a resurgence alongside the Aboriginal cultures of which Stoneking is familiar with growing up in Katherine which stands about 3 hours south of Darwin.
With reference to the cocaine exploding into the face in Tarantino's classic True Romance, C.W. Stoneking pulls out his cards and points out that he has no nose and only half a forehead on his driver’s licence. The crowd was in love. Whilst semi-compulsively tinkering away on his guitar, he introduced his next song with another story.
“Here is a murder ballad, but I didn’t like any of them enough to sing em so… I wrote one instead… I decided to change it up a bit, get tricky and spooky with it because I am a jungle kind of person, so I decided to make the murder weapon this time instead of something for stabbing or shooting or whatever, I made a love charm, a poisonous little product called a Love Me or Die..”
Zombie, from his latest record Gon’ Boogaloo, was the crowd favourite. The distorted wails raised an already joyous crowd into moans and high pitched recalls that left laughter echoing in the venue. The entertaining quality of this song is emblematic in the whole aura of his performance.
C.W. Stoneking pulls the heartstrings with his comedic fables, plays with your perceptions with his schizophrenic lyrics/vocals and magically rubs your ears with his guitar tinkering.
On A Desert Isle brings to mind Jack Johnson’s evil alter-ego, rendering an off-beat melodic vocal line that pleasantly brushes the rhythm along with delicate fashion. Feeling like I ought to raise my glass, the sobering lyrics describing Stoneking’s song of living on a desert isle, where the “old remnants of that paradise / what laid about me / well it changed into an unfriendly land,” rung out powerfully over the swaying crowd.
Finishing with Jungle Lullaby, the evening dived deep into the past of guitar inspired storytelling. The realism of C.W. Stoneking’s sound is reminiscent of an age long gone, where bluesmen played on station platforms and music as we know it was still in its infancy. Despite the occasional buzz from the speakers, The Tuning Fork set up remained to a high standard that dealt well with the fluctuating dynamics of his guitar/vocals.
Goin’ see this guy, especially if you’re a fan of the blues – next and last show is at Sitting Room Sessions in Hawkes Bay tonight.
I caught up with Stoneking after and asked him when we are going to expect the next record and what the first blues tracks he heard were.
“I don’t know how long that takes cos… A lot of aspects doing it for me for writing a song, whether it’s the guitar playing or figuring the arrangements” he said.
“The first blues record I got was an old cassette tape from my Dads which he tapped of two albums on it, one side was a compilation called Living with the Blues which had a lot of like old blues singers from the 30s but recorded in the 50s like Memphis Minnie and Long Willie McTell and different people… and the other side was a 50s Texas blues compilation called the Legendary Duke Sessions, I listened for a few years really before I was into the blues.”