C.W. Stoneking is a born entertainer. Dressed in all white, he emerges onstage in a black polka-dot bowtie with slicked-back hair, looking like a blonde Pee Wee Herman with hand tattoos. Surrounded by a full band complete with a horn section and sexy backup singers in spangly outfits, Stoneking flashes one of his signature showstopping smiles and grabs the mic. He talks and laughs and jokes with the audience, telling tales of voodoo and vaudeville, African tribal mythology and the history of yodeling, in his strange Australian/American drawl.
The showmanship is disarming, but when he starts to sing, Stoneking’s voice is nothing like anyone could have expected. It is low and scratchy and woeful. It is Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Big Bill Broonzy. It is the blues, as if packed into a time capsule and siphoned all the way here to 2016.
Born and raised in Australia’s remote Northern Territory, Stoneking learned to love music from a very young age, thanks to his American schoolteacher father, a fan of 1920s and 1930s blues. The genre provided a welcome alternative to the ’80s pop music that dominated radios at the time, and young Christopher (as Stoneking is known to family and friends) consumed it voraciously and from every angle: gospel and ragtime, calypso and hillbilly, boogie woogie and hokum, Chicago and Memphis and Mississippi Delta. By the time he entered adolescence, Stoneking had taught himself to play the banjo, the guitar, and a prized vintage dobro from 1931—the same instrument that classic blues legends of that era used to play.
By 13 he was performing with local bands and busking around town, developing his skills as both a serious musician and a lighthearted performer. In 1998, after moving to Melbourne, he privately released a self-titled album of covers and started a band called C.W. Stoneking & the Blue Tits. The band broke up less than two years later after the death of mandolin player Charlie Bostock, but Stoneking soon went back to playing solo, doubling down on his classic early blues sound.