C.W. Stoneking at the Coogee Bay Hotel

I was surprised in London last year by the old-time blues sound of Australian musician C.W. Stoneking. Earlier this year I bought one of his albums. Now Stoneking’s touring Australia, and I caught his Sydney show last night.

It was at the Coogee Bay Hotel. I’d not been to this pub before, but I’ve since learned it recently distinguished itself as the second most violent pub in New South Wales. Luckily for us the several sprawling rooms of the hotel were peaceful last night; or perhaps we bailed before the fisticuffs kicked off.

The first act was American banjo troubadour Al Duvall. His songs were old, moaning jazz, but telling funny stories. Anyone who throws in a kazoo solo now and then is tops in my book, so I liked Al. Although most of us were still socialising at this early stage there were others who liked what Al was doing too.

C.W. Stoneking brought the same authenticity as when I saw him the first time. He and his Primitive Horn Orchestra ran through all sorts of old swing blues, calypso, jungle music, and country jazz. It’s all played so smartly and so honestly that it never feels like it’s approaching parody. They played “Jungle Lullaby”, “Dodo Blues” (with a dig at the Dutch), the funny “Talkin’ Lion Blues”, “Brave Son of America”, “Jailhouse Blues”, “Goin’ Down the Country”, “Rich Man’s Blues” and more. They wisely kept the upbeat songs until towards the end, which kept the crowd lively.

My highlights were the two songs of his I enjoy most: “Don’t Go Dancin’ Down The Dark Town Strutters’ Ball” and “The Love Me Or Die”.

Stoneking only has one more Australian show at the moment – tonight in Brisbane – then he’s off to the UK and the rest of Europe. It seems he’s becoming something of a name there.

Here’s a video from the performance where I first saw him in London last year, and which contains the two favourite songs I mentioned above.

My formative music: Stevie Ray Vaughan

This is the last instalment in my “formative music” series. You can review them all by clicking this link.

It’s been fun for me to recollect and to write them. I could have gone on and on, of course, and included artists like Roy Orbison, Anne Murray, Roger Whitaker, Jim Croce, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cat Stevens, Waylon Jennings, and ABBA, but then I’d never end. I also could have written a separate entry for Stan Rogers, but thought I’d just link to the post I wrote a couple of years ago. Thanks for reading.

The last music I need to write about is the blues. This is quite different because it happened much later on in my life. All of the other formative music I’ve spoken was commonly played in my house before I was twelve years old. The blues thing didn’t hit until I was nearly twenty. I was already at university, and coming home for summers. My dad bought a record called Texas Flood by a band named Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble.

It took a little while for me to warm up to it. But once I warmed, I was scorching hot. The depth of emotion in this music blew me away. Stevie had a combination of soul and speed in every string twang that was special. There’s a reason he’s revered amongst guitarists, and was so long before his death. That album hooked me on the blues.

I recognised that the blues had been there, in other forms, in much of the music I’d grown up with or come to enjoy: CCR, folk, spirituals, Led Zeppelin. I jumped in with both feet. I think it’s pretty fair to say I’m now a blues aficionado. The frequently-repeated strains are hypnotic. The themes of loss are understandable. The rhythms are primal. The emotional content is high. The accessibility is universal.  I believe that the blues is the best form of music there is.

I was lucky enough to see Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble play live before Stevie died in a helicopter crash. The day it happened, I was working on the farm for my dad. He gave me the day off.


Mississippi Records Tape Series – Blues & Spirituals

Spotted at Aquarium Drunkard:

Over the past year the RootStrata blog has been sharing the Portland-based Mississippi Records’ ongoing Tape Series in individual installments for those without cassette decks. Shared as zip files, broken into two mp3s (side A and side B) [these are] essential listening for fellow blues enthusiasts: Vol. 18 – How Long Has It Been Since You’ve Been Home? A twenty track compilation of old blues and spirituals.

Folk America: Hollerers, Stompers & Old Time Ramblers

There was a time in 1920s and 1930s America when, having cross-fertilised and gestated sufficiently, folk, blues, jazz, gospel and country music saw the light of a bigger day than they had before. Radio and records meant that music started spreading faster and wider than it had previously. But in the early stages there was great overlap between what was blues, what was country, and what was folk (and what was gospel, and what was jazz…).

Last night at the Barbican was the first of two nights that are part of a BBC series called Folk America. The fact that they chose a famous image of folk-blues legend Dock Boggs for their logo was a good sign, I thought.

Last evening’s show was titled Hollerers, Stompers & Old Time Ramblers. It showcased young American artists who still perform and record in old folk styles, with special attention on the ramblin’, rowdy side of the music. The whole event was emceed by slide-blues late-in-life success story Seasick Steve (who I saw a couple of years back).

Seasick Steve

Steve had half the stage set up with stuff from his house, making the seated crowd feel like we were set on his back porch. He started the night with a couple of his own songs, then proceeded to say a few words to introduce each new act.

Allison Williams and Chance McCoy are an Appalachian banjo player and fiddler who teamed up with a couple of other friends for a nice set of string band songs (with a little step dance solo that got the crowd cheering). Fun.

Next was CW Stoneking. Okay, this guy is from another time. Steve was right when he said that Stoneking is lost in the ’20s, despite only being 34 years old, the son of American parents, and raised in Australia. He walked out in a pure white suit, with black cowboy hat and bowtie, and some brass players. Speaking, his thick-tongued voice is unmissably Australian, but as soon as he picks up a dobro and starts singing he sounds like he’s in 1920s Louisiana. He played songs about being shipwrecked off the coast of Africa (“Jungle Lullaby”), working in a “hoodoo doctor’s office” (“The Love Me Or Die”) and a failed attempt to get a friend to go through with a wedding (“Darktown Strutters Blues”). Eerily phenomenal. Like stumbling across a New Orleans funeral band being led by a ghost.

Next was Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole. They did some upbeat Cajun/Creole that went down well but was perhaps a bit wasted on a staid, seated British audience. This is country dance music and the best venue for it would be a party, not the Barbican.

After the break came Diana Jones, who sang and played guitar with just a bit of accompaniment. These were slower, more soulful songs. She’s an excellent songwriter with touching stories to tell, but her throaty twang was a bit too much for me at times.

Then were the Wiyos. Why have I not heard of these guys? They’re great: fast, polished ragtime with lots of vaudeville flair. “Dying Crapshooters Blues” was great, and they did easily the best washboard solo I’ve ever seen.

Seasick Steve came back on to play a couple more songs and the stomping and hollering began in earnest. He finished with an epic version of “Chiggers”. You know that half of Steve’s down-home act is put on, but so what: the other half is real, I bet, and all the best bluesmen told tall tales about themselves.

They encored with everyone coming onstage for a couple of Uncle Dave Macon jams, including “Won’t Get Drunk No More”. Cue more hollering and step-dancing.

Roots music may not be selling millions, but it’s alive and well, folks. The songs played last night weren’t homages. They were genuine folk music songs, rough and rowdy ones, but coming from modern perspectives and played by (mostly) young people.

Tonight I’m back at the Barbican for part two, Greenwich Village Revisited.

If you get BBC4, they’re showing the concert on TV at 10pm UK time on Friday 23-Jan-09, with some Seasick Steve performances before it.

EDIT: I was also shockingly remiss in neglecting to mention that I met up with Lea and Dave from UnchainedGuide during the intermission and for a quick drink after.

Holidays, and revisiting some old posts

My holiday in Canada is awesome so far, with more fun to come.

A couple of recent comments on the blog have reminded me of some past items:

  • One-man band Ray Stubbs himself commented about my blog on the recent Ealing Blues Festival.
  • The Te Papa Museum in New Zealand has brought back SquidCam: “We’re pulling our squid out of formalyn and moving it to its new display tank. Watch our scientists live on Wednesday 6 August starting 9am NZ time (USA: Tuesday 2pm to 5pm, UK: Tuesday 10pm), for one day only. Check out the full programme on Te Papa’s website.”

See Seasick Steve

I’ve just come back from one helluva gig.

I have to thank my friend the Inkystrator. She dropped me a line some time ago, said I should see this guy Seasick Steve when he comes to London, since he plays the blues. I downloaded a couple of free tracks from his website, liked ’em, so I bought a ticket for the gig. It was in Camden’s Electric Ballroom.

The first act was called The Priscillas. I really enjoyed them: they were an all-girl rock band from London that I’d put somewhere between The Ramones and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Girlie outfits with big grins and lots of guitar.

The second act was called The Crimea. They sucked, hard. They thought they were good, and cool, and melodic. In fact they were awfully boring, with cringe-worthy affectations and lyrics. They reminded me of Jack Black’s band in School of Rock after he leaves it, when they become middle-of-the-road. Apparently you can download their entire album for free from their web site. I wouldn’t bother.

But Seasick Steve. Well, he was truly something else. He’s the real blues deal: a hobo for much of his life, who’s only achieved recognition very recently. His guitars are all pieces of shit: one has three strings (its state when he bought it off a friend), and one is a single string on a box with tin cans attached. All have string for straps. He wears overalls and a John Deere hat. He stomps on a wooden box to keep the beat. He tells funny stories about Tennessee and riding trains.

All these wouldn’t mean squat if Steve couldn’t play, but he surely can. He plays guitar on his own country blues songs, and sings in a fashion that touches on soul. He’s energetic and genuine and interesting and deep South (the first thing he said was, “This song is about my dawg”). It was a truly awesome night of singalong, foot-stompin’, gut-bucket blues.

EDIT: review.