words: Jarith Hughes // photos: Lucas Packett @lucas_packett_photography
“..maybe the spirits in the room, but a warm hazy glow encompassed C.W. as he plays. There’s no fancy lighting or smoke machine but it is evident there is more vibrance and atmosphere in the room that any other act I’ve seen before.”
Upon asking my close friend and bandmate to see C.W. Stoneking with me at The Espy, he described him in a way that I couldn’t better. “... C.W. Stoneking is living proof that time travel exists. There’s no possible way he’s from our era.” Obviously his response was a resounding yes.
We make it to The Hotel Esplanade early, grab a beer and watch the ridiculous que to get in grow longer around the block. This is also thanks to it being Gran Prix weekend. Later the Gershwin Room doors swing open and a swarm of humans gather to get inside. The Gershwin Room is a special place. There’s an electricity, almost tangibly warm, in the atmosphere. After all, the rumour is the original owners of The Espy invited mediums and alike to cast out spirits or ghosts that had been causing trouble in the past. It’s a notably older crowd, which I honestly prefer. There’s a respect for music and an ability to listen. There’s also a thick anticipation in the air. It’s as though the heavens are open above us, or spirits of old have come to join us.
We’re a couple pints deep, the crowd’s attention is drawn to the cool blue light washing the stage. Out walks a tall, young woman rocking a vintage floral jumpsuit and an off-white Fender Mustang guitar. Within moments I’m entranced by a flawless combination of fingerpicking over old time country/western chord progressions. I’m mesmerized by her fingers like spiders, crawling up and down along the fretboard of her guitar. Her voice is that of the old Westerns. It’s delicate, breathy and her falsetto quivers like the needle in the groove of an old record. The song titles are witty and piercing, with names like “Mister One Time”, “Married To The Bottle” and “Jesus Hates it When You Smoke”.
However, among all my notes one is written in all capitals and circled. WHO IS SHE!? I listen in carefully between every song, but even at the end of her set, not once did she introduce herself. Almost frustrated, I tap the person in front of me and ask for her name. FREYA JOSEPHINE HOLLICK.
Another pint in hand, I scan around the room to see the crowd is hot and ready to be swept back in time with more songs.
C.W STONEKING walks onto stage, dressed in an old white cheesecloth button up and a pair of high waisted, wide-leg jeans that look to be fashioned from the 1900’s. Shiny slicked back hair, silver bracelets and rings adorn his tattooed hands holding a beautiful antique jazz box guitar. With a thick old aussie accent, he mumbles his greeting and begins digging into his strings to start the first song.
Flavours of early 1920’s blues, calypso, western, folk, rock’n’roll and african jungle rhythms flow from C.W. as he envelops the stage on his own. His voice reverberates through the room almost effortlessly, with moments of pain and heartbreak in his throat. It was as if I was ripped back into a dark prohibition era speakeasy sipping bourbon from a teacup or a tropical island bar with a bottle of rum in hand by the fire. Between songs there’s hilarious jokes and stories of his songs in barely discernible cottonmouth English. It’s as if C.W. holds the spirit of a century old bluesman or was himself born 100 years ago. Incredible technique and attitudes stream from his guitar as if he owned the hands of the greatest blues, jazz, calypso and country guitarists. Overtones and rhythms in his playing could convince you he had a band onstage behind a curtain.
Perhaps it’s the beers, or maybe the spirits in the room, but a warm hazy glow encompassed C.W. as he plays. There’s no fancy lighting or smoke machine but it is evident there is more vibrance and atmosphere in the room that any other act I’ve seen before. As the night draws near its end I lose track of my friend, and find myself alone, yet entirely swept up in the music and the crowd. I didn’t want the songs or night to end. C.W. Stoneking strummed his last chords and the house lights gently rose. As the crowds dispersed, we re-entered the main room of The Hotel Esplanade, smashing disco songs to a crowd of drunk yuppies in their guchi’s and polo’s. I think to myself, I wished I’d been born 100 years ago where what’d just shared was a normal weekend at the pub. Nevertheless, I can thank C.W. Stoneking for enlightening us and sharing a sliver of beautiful, organic music that resounds of the times before.