C.W. Stoneking, Brownbird Rudy Relic @ The Corner, Melbourne (29/11/2008)

Critically acclaimed, a Radio National favourite, a Triple J cult hit. It is rare that all three of these terms ever overlap when discussing any contemporary musician. Such is C.W. Stoneking’s appeal that his Saturday-night audience at the Corner Hotel can only best be described as the 18-60 year-old demographic. Touring in support of his incredible Jungle Blues album, Stoneking’s particular brand of blues and “calypso” music has struck a chord with many in this country and has seen him championed as a “saviour” of the genre. On a warm November night, a mixed crowd (and that is an understatement) stretched down Swan St in anticipation of a gig that was sure to surprise and entertain.

Local DJ Mohair Slim kicked off the night’s entertainment by warming up a steadily filling Corner-crowd with a set of horn-heavy blues and soul numbers. Decked out in a jungle-inspired ensemble that included matching Khaki shorts and shirt, long socks and an impressive pith helmet; Mohair Slim progressively grew in confidence as he made his way through his record collection and his share of the bar-tab. Conversations continued but feet were starting to tap, hips starting to shake – particularly in the less image-conscious, more senior members of the crowd. The mood had been set.

By the time New York support act “Brownbird” Rudy Relic stepped on stage, the venue was almost at its capacity. No one seemed quite sure what to expect when he sat down, hair slicked, with a strapless, un-plugged steel acoustic guitar on his lap and a plastic bag filled with bottles of water at his side. After adjusting a kazoo attached to a small piece of wire around his neck, he thanked us kindly for coming out before launching into a frenetic blues number; his powerful voice instantly garnering the attention of his audience. Shaking incessantly as he played, “Brownbird” was soon standing upright (no mean feet without a guitar-strap), jumping, dancing and gyrating towards an enthralled public. A roar of applause and yells met the close of his first song; we were all surprised but deeply impressed. Before long he had charmed us with a story from the tour involving himself, C.W. and his Orchestra and a potent drink combining Sprite and Robitussin, downing bottle after bottle of water as he spoke. More earnest playing was to follow with each lyric yelled, nay, hollered, only to be interrupted by the occasional kazoo solo and microphone readjustment. Brownbird’s stage antics became more extreme as the set moved along, with him soon bouncing on top of his small chair, recklessly spinning his guitar around and once, stopping mid song to smooth his hair and check his reflection in the back of his guitar. By the last song of his set, Your Tricks Ain’t Wokin’, he had torn his shirt open and fallen to his knees alongside a thoroughly destroyed chair and a dozen empty bottles. “I’m f***ing exhausted,” he croaked, before wobbling off stage to a thunderous ovation. Undoubtedly the sort of reception most support acts can only dream of but one which his performance and showmanship more than merited.

It was well past 11.00 when C.W. Stoneking and his Primitive Horn Orchestra took to the stage. Looking positively dapper in a white shirt and pants combo with his now-customary red bow-tie, C.W. grinned as he shuffled into position. “How ya all doin’ folks?” he asked in a thick, rural Australian accent. A tightly packed audience shouted back at him. The Primitive Horn Orchestra, comprised of James Clarke on double bass and tuba, Steven Grant on trumpet, Kynan Robinson on trombone and Art of Fighting’s Ollie Brown on drums, were dressed smartly, unassumingly positioned behind and to the side of Stoneking.

After a brief introduction they began, jolting the Corner into life with a roaring rendition of I Heard the Marching of the Drum from this year’s critically acclaimed release, Jungle Blues. The raw power of Stoneking’s vocals rose above the immense horns of the Orchestra and Brown’s booming drum work, conjuring images of war and death within the jungle. The band promptly left the stage to provide a more intimate forum for Stoneking to strum his tenor banjo and yodel through the fantastical cautionary tale of Talkin’ Lion Blues. With the band rejoining him after a brief story, Stoneking crooned and be-ba-ba-ba-dooed through Dodo Blues from his breakthrough record, King Hokum. Another story from his time in Trinidad “back in ‘95, not 98 like some of the papers been reportin,” before Stoneking delivered the history of US army General Douglas MacArthur with brilliant support from Grant’s trumpet and the rest of the Orchestra on Brave Son of America. A sexagenarian couple swayed enthusiastically at the foot of the stage while a man someway up the back called out for a repeat of the Seven Nation Army cover Stoneking and his orchestra so successfully mastered on Triple J’s Like A Version. “Who let the Triple J listener in?” asked C.W.. Nervous shuffling from the younger half of the crowd. “That was a joke,” he assured.

The band left again to allow Stoneking to sing “the first song [he] ever wrote,” Jailhouse Blues, before an incredible ten-minute tale involving a man in a dress playing the banjo preceded the surprisingly measured Don’t Go Dancin’ Down the Darktown Strutter’s Ball. One of the highlights of the evening was to follow when Stoneking’s wife, Kirsty Fraser, looking stunning in an above-the-knee red and black dress, joined him and the band. Strutting around the stage, she vented frustration towards her husband through the wonderful Housebound Blues before delivering the less than subtle undertones of On A Christmas Day in a cheeky duet with C.W.. This excellent cameo was only tempered slightly for this reviewer by the cry of “Oh my god that girl just vomited on me” from a distressed patron only a few metres behind.

Following Fraser’s departure, Stoneking took us through “the chronological part of the set,” moving from West Africa with Jungle Blues and Jungle Lullaby to Warrnambol in Goin’ To the Country and his encounters with menial employment in Handyman Blues. He toyed with the rumours surrounding the authenticity of his voice, re-affirming that it was merely a bi-product of having sold his soul to the devil, before the drawling tones of Early in the Mornin’ swept through the Corner. As the clock moved past 12.30am, C.W. teed up the brilliant radio hit The Love Me Or Die with a brief story, seemingly assuming that most had already heard it. After thanking all and sundry, Stoneking began to howl the murder ballad as if he too was cursed, the Primitive Horn Orchestra as always providing accomplished support. Rapturous applause met its conclusion and then, after several hours, the evening was over.

In C.W. Stoneking, the blues are most certainly alive and we can only hope that he continues to tour and put out new records in the coming years. If he achieves this, his wide-spread appeal and exceptional talent will ensure that he becomes an icon on the national music landscape.