It’s 1938. I’m in a bar in Memphis and this young guy’s hollering up a storm, slicked back hair flopping over his eyes and his mouth as wide as the Mississippi he’s singing the blues like a preacher on a mission to convert all the sinners of the world. Okay…it’s not 1938…and sadly I’m not in a bar in Memphis but, shut your eyes and, not for the first time this evening it’s all too easy to find yourself swept away to another time and place. The culprit? Brownbird Rudy Relic, not a ‘half Japanese half American guy’ as one misinformed reviewer recently labelled him (much to Rudy’s bemusement) but a Mexican American with a real case of the blues.
After so many great singers and songs it isn’t easy to make the blues sound fresh and exciting but Brownbird does a pretty great job, mainly thanks to the sheer exuberance of his performance. I’ve never seen a guy sitting down (which he did for the entire set) put quite so much effort in to a show.
I’ve never seen a kazoo used in a blues performance either, but somehow he managed to rescue it from the Benny Hill of instruments and make it work. An awesome voice, rich and velvety – think shades of Otis Redding singing ‘Try A Little Tenderness’(particular on tonight’s set highlight ‘Your Tricks Ain’t Workin’) – coupled with a self penned songbook of authentic but fresh sounding blues numbers makes this particular Brownbird anything but a relic.
It’s 1928. I’m in New Orleans and it’s as hot as a cat on a hot tin roof. Some grizzled old Southern dude’s sitting in the corner of bar nursing a ‘medicinal’ glass of Jack and singing his soul out. Okay…you know the routine by now…sadly it’s 2011 and I’m still in the ‘O2’ Academy 3…but this gig really did have a curious way of making the real world crumble away. Like Brownbird, CW Stoneking’s well and truly from another time and place…possibly from a different world too. His accent and vocal style is difficult to pin down at first, but after discovering that he was raised by American parents in an Aboriginal community it all makes a lot more sense. He doesn’t sound like a ‘white’ dude, but more importantly than that he doesn’t sound like he belongs in the 21st century either. Time and time again I found myself thinking “that sound ain’t coming outta there is it? It’s a trick. He’s miming to old blues 78s…surely…what the…nope…that’s him singing…extraordinary”. On top of the vocals there’s the look, striped blazer, white trousers and shoes and hair gelled back so severely it looked like it was painted on. He is, in short, that rare thing amongst performers these days…the full package.
The set itself was an extensive trawl through his back catalogue with plenty of numbers from his big breakthrough album ‘Jungle Blues’. Fusing Calypso, Jazz and Hokum (a form of American Blues that often used humour to disguise risqué material or to attract audiences to stick around for the musical element of a show), it’s an intoxicating mix which reached its pinnacle tonight with the ode to General MacArthur ‘Brave Son of America’… then of course there was the only yodelling jungle song ever written ‘Talkin’ Lion Blues’. Yes, it was that kind of night.
Giving a well deserved nod to The Mills Brothers (the Africa American foursome who produced some extraordinary musical instrument sounds using just their voices) and one or two other artists who’ve obviously influenced his style Stoneking’s clearly keen to pay his dues. I’d add CW’s spiritual granddaddy Leon Redbone to that list. I mention C.W.’s hat tipping here because there have been a few snide comments about C.W.’s act being racist…seemingly because he happens to sound like a black dude singing. Bollocks. It’s like criticizing Trevor MacDonald for sounding like he grew up the home counties. If anything it’s a homage to the music and its originators…and an affectionate one at that. Speaking of which kudos to the Primitive Horn Orchestra tonight too, deliciously understated and seemingly effortless playing that provided the perfect bed for those laid back vocals.
In between songs, and an integral part of the whole Stoneking experience were a series of increasingly rambling and farfetched tales including his account of being shipwrecked off the African coast, squatters on his mum’s dildo farm, life as a Hoodoo doctor’s assistant and his career as a ventriloquist. “After being forced to do 12 shows a day” he drawled “I still find it hard to open my mouth”, perhaps accounting for his somewhat tight lipped style of vocal delivery. Of course that could all be cobblers… it almost certainly is… but what the hell does it matter, it’s entertaining cobblers and a rare example of an artist who know that a performance doesn’t… shouldn’t… ever have to end. But sadly the night had to. After leading the crowd in a rousing sing along cover of Washboard Sam’s ‘Good Old Cabbage Greens’ C.W. had one more story to tell us…“I’ve got to go now…and sell some merchandise…to pay for my momma’s operation”. Genius. Pure hokum to the end.