C. W. Stoneking, Portland Arms, Cambridge 20th June 2018

A welcome return to the UK for one of Australia’s most accomplished purveyors of vintage – but not, so far, old timey – music which sounds
fresh and vibrant in the hands of this aficionado of early jazz / blues / boogalooing rhythm and blues. On his last tour he was accompanied by a full band and concentrated on his then still recent album ‘Gon’ Boogaloo‘ which, as the name suggested, pushed his sound forward a decade or so to an all electric band, with no banjos in sight. This time around the gigs have been advertised as “solo” and there have been hints of a new album on the way which might…or might not…be showcased a little – but no binding commitments as to what to expect.

With only a few minutes to go to the stage time the room finally started to fill up – so there were a reasonable number in the audience for the opening set from Lea Nicholson and Naomi Randall who’s music is from the psych end of the folk spectrum and included both their own material, such as the gently downbeat ‘Whirlpool’, traditional tunes like ‘The Carrick Hornpipe‘ transposed from Northumbrian pipe to concertina, and some select covers – the Dead’s version of ‘Candyman‘ was suitably dreamlike and the Bonzo’s ‘I’m the urban spaceman‘ remained quirky. Naomi Randall has a lovely voice for psychfolk, and the duo have musical strength through combinations of guitar, bass and concertina.

C. W. Stoneking took the stage just after nine, with a set list that looked long but which, he informed us, he’d added a few more to. We were in for a full evening. Solo he has a much more relaxed manner than in a band setting – with the primitive horn orchestra his stage presence was commanding, with the all female ‘Gon’ Boogaloo‘ band there was an undercurrent of aggressive tension and something of a rejection of his older material. Solo – well it’s songs from all three albums, some of his hokum tales and the occasional chiding of the audience for their less than wholehearted participation when asked to add some backing vocals. We start, however, at the beginning, with the semi-autobiographical ‘How Long‘ which starts with a neat blues lick that merges into a storming boogaloo stomp as Stoneking starts from his birth and goes looking for meaning in life. We’re soon into exaggeration and falsification amongst aggrandisation – in other words CW Stoneking’s hokum world. It would be a strange CW Stoneking gig that didn’t include long and tall tales – so much so that after an hour or so he admonishes himself to stop talking so much if he’s ever goig to get to the bottom of the set list.

His duets with himself – ‘Goin’ the country‘ and ‘Dodo Blues‘ show off a comic flair honed from formative years of busking, whilst the latter in particular has a plaintive sadness behind the jazzy melody. Who, after all, could better appreciate the meaning of lonely than the “last Dodo bird in existence“? It’s a simple and beautiful sadness that’s evoked as Stoneking sings “nothing can be right when everything is wrong / nothing can be wrong when I’m walkin’ with my baby – I wish that I was“. The ‘Love me or die‘ is a popular favourite, but newer songs like the already mournful ‘Mama got the blues‘ take on a an even more sombre quality with a solo arrangement, whilst ‘The Zombie‘ still boogie’s like the newest dance sensation and the relentlessly upbeat ‘Good Luck Charm‘ loses none of it’s energy. The banjo seems to be a thing of the past, sadly, and in the end the only “new” song was a nicely done Big Bill Broonzy cover – ‘Long Tall Mama‘ – but the lack of new material simply meant more more room for a longer stroll through the existing three albums leading up to the sweet and gentle ‘Jungle Lullaby’ as a closer. A beautiful end to a great gig – full of great music and Stoneking’s trademark slurred singing style, and in this more “intimate” setting also showing off to good advantage the easy rapport CW Stoneking can form with his audience.

Set List (approximate)

How Long
Charley Bostock’s Blues
Goin’ the country
Bread maker
Ragged & Dirty
Dodo Blues
Marchin’ of the drum
Way out in the world
Love me or die
The thing I done
Mama got the blues
Goin’ back south
Good luck charm
The Zombie
Jungle Blues
Talkin’ lion blues
Brave song of America
Handyman blues
We gon’ boogaloo
Long tall mama
I’m the jungle man
Jungle lullaby

About Jonathan Aird 2653 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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