In 1920s slang, a ''sheik'' was a hip gentleman - a man about town - with obvious romantic appeal. Leigh Barker's band The New Sheiks are five snappily dressed young lads and one sassy lass, re-creating the sound of early jazz and blues. They dig up obscure songs from the American South, polish them up and make them sparkle with life.They also incorporate new tunes, dressed in vintage clothes but delivered with a playful nod to the now. A case in point from Friday's concert: Sex With My Ex, a mischievous update on the flagrantly suggestive blues tunes sung by Bessie Smith and others.
Singer Heather Stewart's ability to stretch phrases subtly over the bar line gives her vocals a seductive, slightly world-weary quality, and her fiddle playing contains echoes of old-time country and folk styles.
The rhythm section (Barker on bass, Matt Boden on upright piano and Sam Young on drums) imbues each tune with a buoyant swing that can be nudged into a strut or swagger, while Eamon McNelis and Don Stewart - on trumpet and trombone respectively - sound crisp, airy, jovial and mournful by turns.
The second set of Friday's show saw the Sheiks morph into the Melbourne Rhythm Project. Seven impossibly energetic dancers (led by Ramona Staffeld and Grant Swift) took to the floor, blending tap and lindy hop in choreographed routines and improvised solos that demonstrated - in irresistible fashion - the once inextricable links between jazz and dance.
In this case, the singer is Heather Stewart (who also plays violin on some songs). The horn players riffing behind her, or stepping up to take a solo, are Eamon McNelis (cornet) and Don Stewart (trombone) – both perhaps better known as members of Flap! – while Barker’s mates in the swinging rhythm section are pianist Matt Boden and drummer Al McGrath-Kerr.
On this album, recorded variously live and in the studio, they all have great fun performing a variety of original songs and vintage classics. The latter include ‘Sales Tax’ and ‘Lonely One In This Town’ by the Mississippi Sheiks, Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday’ and ‘Creole Blues’, and a neat medley of Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Jungle Blues’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘Love In Vain’. Impressive teamwork, lots of strong solos and vocals, plenty of fun.
By Adrian Jackson - Rhythms Magazine
"Early blues and jug band from a talented young violinist vocalist.
This is a refreshing new CD from Heather Stewart and her talented trio. It is a bluesy, jug band sound, but with Heather out front singing in her Bessie Smith tinged vocals it has an extra dimension to it.