Christopher William Stoneking is a thirty-something white Australian singer who appears to have entered into some kind of Robert Johnson style pact with a satanic agency in order to achieve a spookily authentic 1920s delta blues/New Orleans jazz hybrid sound. He sings with the voice of a sixty year old black man, plays banjo and guitar like Elvis never happened and his small band provide spare yet full-blooded backing. His album Jungle Blues was released in the UK in 2010 (although it had been recorded two years previously) and was the most surprising and disconcerting thing I heard that year – after a period of acclimatisation it established itself as a favoured companion and I became curious to find out whether he could replicate this music live. He’s playing a handful of dates, and rather uncharacteristically I made the effort to leave Cambridge for an evening at The Relentless Garage in Highbury.
I’m not sure how much say Stoneking had in who his support act was, but it was a pretty shrewd choice by somebody: there are some similarities in the type of songs the two acts play, but great differences in the presentation. Brownbird Rudy Relic is a skinny bequiffed New Yorker of Japanese extraction who sings manic ragtime blues on a rather lovely steel acoustic guitar. His only other props are an office chair and a kazoo, which gives the instrumental breaks of his songs something of a Benny Hill feel. This guy is energetic: he came on stage armed with a dozen bottles of water and during his half hour set he’d downed the lot. He spends most of time sitting on his chair but this isn’t anything to do with sedateness, it just affords him to opportunity to provide his own percussion by banging his feet enthusiastically on the stage while he flails around and bellows out his tales of lost love at such volume that the two microphones stationed either side of him are frankly unnecessary. Sometimes he stands on the chair and attempts to walk it across the stage, all the time furiously scrubbing his guitar. Sometimes he spins his guitar round on its axis and fumbles the catch, sometimes he drops his picks, but this is all forgiven because of the passion of his performance. I never saw James Brown, Little Richard or Joe Strummer live, but I can’t believe they ever threw more of themselves into a performance than Rudy does. He’s the most entertainingly physical singer I’ve seen since John Otway.
After a break Stoneking appears, dressed in his trademark white sailor suit and bowtie and carrying what looks like a vintage banjo. His band consist of a trombonist, a cornet player, a string bass player who sometimes swaps his instrument for a tuba, and a drummer armed with brushes. He starts by picking out the slow, skeletal chords of Early In The Mornin and humming in the manner of a negro spiritual before the band join in, the eerie mood giving way to something more lustful when the trombonist plays a phrase reminiscent of a jazz age strip-club. All the playing is technically faultless, but this music seems to go beyond pastiche and I think the key to its authenticity is Stoneking’s extraordinary vocals. It’s like he’s been possessed by the spirit of a genuine 1920s bluesman.
Other songs are more upbeat, but no less vivid, and Stoneking’s carnival master persona becomes more apparent. It’s gratifying, given that his lyrics are often constructed out of tall tales and colourful shaggy dog stories, that we are treated to a couple of highly diverting between-song ramblings involving shipwrecks, hoodoo doctors’ assistants, fortune tellers and disrupted wedding ceremonies. Stoneking’s accent is fascinating: he’s softly spoken, with definite Australian inflection, but sounding in the main like he’s from the American deep South. Sometimes he puts down his banjo and takes up an acoustic guitar, sometimes the band leave the stage and he plays solo. A lot of the material from Jungle Blues makes more sense when heard live – Talkin’ Lion Blues in particular is suddenly hilarious. There are quite a few songs played from Stoneking’s first record King Hokum, which is yet to be released in the UK. On the evidence of this gig, it’s well worth seeking out.
The band play for about an hour and twenty minutes, ending with the love-charm rouser The Love Me Or Die, there’s a one song encore and then it’s over. Despite my low level anxiety about catching the train back home I could have done with some more. You must see him.