C.W. Stoneking: Blues that not only swing but stumble

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C.W. Stoneking: Blues that not only swing but stumble

CW Stoneking
Words by Andy Brewer

It has been a minute between visits to Thornbury Theatre, although I think not much changes round these here parts.

The individual beside me was counting something called “baby bangs”. I have no idea what the world is coming to. It’s all going to burn down. Apparently, they had already tallied nine baby bangs, nine lumberjack shirts and four waxed ‘taches. The night was young.

While usually of the belief that it’s best for a band not to outstay their welcome, I had nevertheless been attracted to CW Stoneking’s two-hour set time. “No mucking around with bundles of support acts, and perhaps some extended hoedowns,” mused I.

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With CW’s sometimes bluesy holler and lurching rhythms, Tom Waits was a recurring touchstone throughout, and here his banjo sparkled astride the muted mellow horn accompaniment.  It was not hard to imagine how glorious this would all be in some smoke-filled, dark and dank shithole with sticky floors and some Bukowski-type barfly fist-fighting ghosts in a corner. Again, the night was still young.

Seemingly front loading his set, Stoneking and co rumbled through a mournful swamp lament, before proving all bass lines were covered as the double bassist donned a tuba for what seemed a warped reminiscence on Alexander’s Ragtime Band. ‘Brave Son Of America’ was a treat, not merely for its raucous calypso, but for alerting the curious listener that its commonality to The Avalanches’ ‘Frankie Sinatra’ was actually a shared debt to a classic Wilmoth Houdini number circa 1947. Glorious. 

As CW Stoneking hollered, “I roll like thuuuuunder…” to commence the rusty lo-fi ‘The Thing I Done’, it seemed he was searching for a roar but lost in a gale. It was a pithy reflection of the show’s chief drawback. Mellow songs suited to a solo or structured arrangement, like much of ‘King Hokum’, didn’t come out so well in the wash amidst a boisterous horn section and combating a progressively rowdy audience. Similarly, one would not expect Mississippi John Hurt to reel off ‘Nobody’s Dirty Business’ with any accompaniment beyond his own guitar, let alone a horn section.

While on the subject – anyone who digs that first Stoneking LP should check out Mississippi’s ‘Avalon Blues’ which seems a better fitting delta blues comparison for Stoneking than many. But I digress, essentially these reserved tunes might appear starker with a simpler presentation; and this contributed to the crowd, some clearly seeking serious Saturday night juke joint lubrication, becoming noticeably distracted. If intent on this longer set presentation, Stoneking would be well served by dishing up two separate sets: one of solo acoustic blues, followed by another of his swampy stompers suited to the stumbling, fumbling and inebriated jitterbugging now spreading like wildfire.

Just as it seemed the PA lacked the decibel grunt to grasp hold of the attendant ear follicles, the band returned to strengths. Increased song structure and swampy charms brought it back from the brink and turned the crowd around, ‘Tomorrow Gon Be Too Late’ and ‘Good Luck Charm’ bearing the load. Neither resembled their recorded form, and curiously the latter diverged from hoarse doo wop into a good ol’ fashioned stomper with a hint of Nawlins.

It remained hard to discern the songs as per the recorded renditions (and how mighty would a backing trio be for those two numbers), but we were back in business, and the anecdotes were ribaldly marching forward in lockstep with the fans. After a long tale about the Bermuda Triangle and pubic hairs (I think?!) Monsieur Stoneking hit his mark in a romping horny fanfare, followed by two blues (‘Handyman’ and ‘Jailhouse’ I believe, the former with a smidge of that trombone blap everyone needs in their life).

It underlined how CW’s blues not only swing but stumble, often seeming a nudge behind the beat. It’s like Dr John struggling to get his key in the door after a big night out, although I obtusely recalled Parrish Smith (EPMD) “With the slow tempo, and the off-beat rhyme flow”. It certainly earned my ducats.

Penultimate rhythm and blues ‘We Gon’ Boogaloo’ similarly dragged its feet while propelled forward by some curious momentum, as though Sisyphus gave up only to find he was chained to that damn rock. Good times, and after ‘Jungle Lullaby’ those few still standing had to stumble downstairs after that boulder and into the chilly night.

Postscript: the last tally I heard had lumberjack shirts on top with 19, baby bangs 13, while waxed mo’s faded after a strong start.

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