CW Stoneking review – wry revivalist makes party music for the present

Moth Club, London
The droll Australian repurposes old trad jazz, blues, calypso and country sounds into fresh, absurdist entertainment

Revivalists of bygone music lend themselves to nostalgia, cabaret and twee fetishisation of the past. It’s a rare act who eludes this trap; CW Stoneking is one.

What Gillian Welch is to bluegrass and Black Lips are to 1960s garage rock, Stoneking is to black American popular music of the early 20th century: an artist of deep and varied knowledge and technique. Not bad going for a white man from Australia’s Northern Territory (albeit born to American parents).

The similarities to Welch end there. She’s a first-rate serious songwriter; he’s a droll entertainer with a flair for making old-timey sounds into party music for the present. Rather than use the blues to evoke a perceived gritty authenticity, Stoneking embraces the wryness and absurdity that abound in his many sources – a fantastical glee in telling tall stories. Most of his stories centre on a cartoon jungle where his protagonist fights big cats, serenades beauties, flees zombies and records in a one-room shack. His record label rejoices in the name of King Hokum.

“I don’t only write about the jungle,” he tells the small, jam-packed venue, mock-indignantly. “I write about skateboarding and some other stuff I’m into.” But none of those songs worked out, so here he is, launching into I’m the Jungle Man from 2014’s Gon’ Boogaloo. He’s not prolific, but there is little on his three albums of original material that isn’t in one way or another a delight.

Fronting a five-piece outfit (himself on vocals and highly dextrous guitar playing, plus upright bass, drums and two female singers) from beneath a Stetson hat, Stoneking flickers in accent and persona between north of Alice Springs and south of the Mason-Dixon line. He taps into the collective imagination not just of blues artists – Goin’ Back South comically treats death as an inconvenient error – but also of old New Orleans jazzmen (on the wonderful, slumbering shuffle of The Zombie), creators of Calypso narrative tributes (Brave Son of America), the singers who took gospel from church to dance hall (a stomping Good Luck Charm) and Western crooners (the melancholy, Hawaii-inflected kitsch of On a Desert Isle and the hilarious yodelling tune Talkin’ Lion Blues.) The styles are archaic, but the results feel fresh.

He also gets a nice bit of business out of professing to hate banjos. It might be true, but I wouldn’t do this splendid fabulist the disservice of believing a word he says.


David Bennun

The GuardianTramp

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