If you look at the star rating at the top of this piece, you might think I was a bit lukewarm about Rackhouse Pilfer, but the band was very good; that wasn’t the problem. There are a lot of other things that can take the shine off a potentially great evening, so let’s get those out of the way before we go any further. There are notices all around the venue reminding the audience not to talk during performances; it didn’t make any difference, particularly during Elly O’Keefe’s support set. To add insult to injury, the sound, particularly the vocals, was pretty muddy throughout the night (maybe the position of the sound desk, to one side of the stage, doesn’t help) which isn’t helpful when there are six instruments and some lovely vocal harmonies featuring all six band members. And that’s before we mention the snare rattling constantly throughout Elly O’Keefe’s set. So what about the good stuff?
Well, Elly’s set was solid singer-songwriter material delivered, mainly her own songs with one cover, John Martyn’s “Over the Hill”. Her chord progressions were interesting, she strummed and picked and her voice went all the way from a delicate whisper to a bluesy shout. As the audience chatter got louder, so did she and eventually she won the contest.
Rackhouse Pilfer was another proposition entirely; six musicians, all of them singers as well, is a very different kind of sound. With various combinations of drums, upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, slide resonator and banjo the band is totally at ease with a variety of textures and they sounded convincing across a spectrum ranging from Irish traditional through bluegrass, Hank Williams country (“Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?”), the seventies Laurel Canyon scene and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”. I missed murder ballads, didn’t I?
The original songs from the last album, particularly “Angela” and “Two Oceans” are powerful live and the playing (individually and as an ensemble) is spot on, but Rackhouse Pilfer have one more trick. When all six members sing and when all the voices are working together perfectly, it’s something very special indeed; it’s hard not to make that Eagles comparison when you hear those harmonies. The niggly little things that tarnished the night a little were out of the band’s control and only made me determined to see Rackhouse Pilfer doing their eclectic mix in a more congenial environment next time. You should keep an eye out for them.
Here are some pictures from the gig.
Well, that was an interesting experience. For most of the evening I felt like a gatecrasher at a meeting of a benevolent religious sect. I never felt unwelcome but, as an impartial observer (I liked the run of singles between 1983 and 1986) I couldn’t share the devotion of the fans who had all the albums, knew all the songs, B-sides included, and had stayed with Howard Jones for over thirty years. And I’ve never seen so many couples in their forties/fifties cuddling at a gig. These were people who had grown up with Howard’s music and made it part of their lives. Taking their cue from his Buddhist beliefs, they were ready to welcome outsiders to the celebration; they certainly extended their welcome to Rachael Sage as a support act.
I’m slightly biased; I saw Rachael a couple of times last year and loved her “Choreographic” album. Accompanied by her usual duo partner, violinist Kelly Halloran, she played a short (thirty minute) set taken mainly from the latest album, featuring “Loreena”, “I Don’t Believe It” and “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and a new, unreleased, song about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the plight of the people of Standing Rock Reservation. The Howard Jones fans warmed to Rachael’s very personal style of writing and the powerful performance of her guitar and keyboard-driven songs punctuated by Kelly’s violin (ever heard wah-wah violin before?) and occasional backing vocals. A great audience response and the stage was set.
Howard Jones performs solo, with only a digital piano as accompaniment and it’s quite a challenge to deliver a set featuring songs that were mainly driven by big eighties synths, but he’s worked hard to pare down the arrangements for this format. Unlike a lot of eighties nostalgia acts, he sticks to his own material (with one exception) because he knows his audience and he knows what they want to hear. He knows what they want to hear because they’ve been emailing their requests for months and the set’s based on those requests. Value for money? It’s a full two hour set with the songs (including “New song”, “What is Love?”, “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “No One is to Blame” and lots of album tracks) interspersed with Howard’s anecdotes and the fans’ reasons for requesting particular songs. And that’s the only real problem for me; the stories of people’s lives, with the triumphs and tragedies, attached to particular songs evoke memories of the sickly Simon Bates “Our Tune” feature which premiered on Radio One in the eighties.
That aside, Howard Jones’ solo piano accompaniment works perfectly and his voice is holding up really well. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this gig, but I was entertained without being totally engaged and it was fascinating to see such a loyal audience. And the one non-Howard Jones song was a George Michael tribute – “Careless Whisper”.
This might be the perfect antidote to the swamp of Saturday evening TV talent shows. Just launched at Omeara in London Bridge today, Salute Music Makers is an initiative created by entrepreneurs Lars Bylehn, Michael Bylehn, Minesh Patel, Patrick Butterfield and Jean-Claude Charnier, with media partner Unilad and fronted by Feargal Sharkey.
Here’s the way it’s going to work. From April 3rd, five thousand ‘Music Makers’ will upload their music via a phone app, and the Salute team, along with industry curators will whittle the five thousand down to a hundred. As this is happening, all of the music will be shared via the app to create an online new music community. The hundred acts will then be the subject of a live public vote to narrow down the field to six acts, each receiving a £10,000 prize. The final six will take part in a TV show with a different theme each week and the task of writing an original song for every show.
At the end of this, the winner will take away £40,000, raising their total prize to £50,000. I don’t know about you, but I think this might actually be a talent show worth watching (and listening) to.
OK, let’s get this straight from the start. It’s Stone Foundation; not The Stone Foundation. It’s an important distinction because the name has layers of meaning. It’s a reference to the solid bond uniting the core of the band: Neil Jones, Neil Sheasby, Phil Ford and Ian Arnold. But it’s also a reference to the foundations that underpin the band, the songwriting partnership of Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby and the locked-in, rock-solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Phil Ford. That’s not to understate the importance of Ian Arnold’s keyboards or Rob Newton’s congas, but none of it can happen without the purring V8 (I know, mixed metaphors) engine.
And the rhythm section (along with the rest of the band) can turn on a sixpence as well. “Love Rediscovered” has the band alternating tempos and time signatures in a jazz-inflected piece with gentle ensemble horns and some lovely background sax fills. In many ways it’s the least typical song on the album, but it has a strand of the common thread of social commentary running through it. In that respect it’s a lot like the Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield social consciousness albums of the early seventies.
The big ticket news item is always going to be the involvement of Paul Weller as producer, co-writer, player and singer. On the two previous albums, the band have attracted some high-profile guests, but nothing quite in this league. The most obvious influence is in the current single “The Limit of a Man”, which has hints of Style Council, although there are suggestions of Brenton Wood’s “Gimme Little Sign” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” in there as well. It’s a gloriously upful song and should, by rights, be all over the radio.
Paul Weller aside, there are guest appearances from Bettye Lavette on the midtempo “Season of Change”, full of horn stabs and parping baritone sax, and William Bell on “Strange People” with, strings, Hammond, horns, a flute solo and even a bit of cowbell. Both singers still sound fabulous. On the ‘business as usual’ front, Neil Jones’ vocals seem to get better with each album and Neil Sheasby has created some lovely melodic basslines.
Stone Foundation managed something wonderful with “Street Rituals”. They’ve expanded their musical palette by adding flute, more strings and some over-driven guitar to the usual mix of piano, Hammond and horns to create a timeless vibe that’s thoroughly modern while acknowledging its roots. There’s a lot going on with “Street Rituals”; it sounds gorgeous on the first listen, but on repeat keeps revealing more and more. Is there a better British soul band at the moment? I very much doubt it.
“Street Rituals” is released on Friday March 31 on 100 Per Cent Records.
I’m not going to keep you in suspense; I love this album, it’s a very beautiful piece of work. It’s eleven very special songs (more about that later) interpreted by some very gifted musicians that we’ve reviewed over the last few years here (how about Will Kimbrough, Neilson Hubbard and Telisha Williams for starters, not forgetting Carrie’s husband Danny Schmidt). “The Penny Collector” is a set of songs created during a pivotal period for Carrie Elkin that focus on the circle of life; birth, childhood, adolescence (and rebellion), adulthood and death. It’s built around some of popular culture’s timeless themes; family, nature, love and loss and framed by some of the most gorgeous musical settings you’ll hear this year (or possibly any other). There’s a huge variety of musical stylings across the album, pulled together by the quality of the songs and Carrie’s wonderful voice.
The album opens with some atmospheric, almost Ennio Morricone, ambient guitar noises (Will Kimbrough would be my guess) leading into “New Mexico” where the playing is quiet and delicate but the mix is loud; it’s minimal and intimate but in your face at the same time. It’s an indication that you might have to forget about conventions; “The Penny Collector” doesn’t play to any recognised rules.
Throughout the album, Carrie’s vocals are closely-miked and placed right up front and centre; it’s a technique that works when the singer has perfect control, which Carrie has, totally and utterly. There’s a rich poetical seam running through the album (with references to nature, particularly birds), and it’s particularly evident in the adolescent rebellion song “Live Wire” with the line ‘A life half-empty is a life half-spilled’. There’s plenty more to discover but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
As for the musical settings, “Always on the Run” builds up to a Spectoresque climax, the melancholy “Crying Out” is played out over a string section and perfect layers of vocal harmonies and the album’s finale “Lamp of the Body” is a heavily reverbed mixture of mandolin, over-driven guitar and counterpoint vocals creating a sound that’s menacing and gospel-tinged in equal measures.
“The Penny Collector” is a potent mix of Southern American poetry, perfectly subverted musical settings and beautifully controlled vocals. It’ll make you reflect on your own life; the choices you made, the experiences you had, and the support you had from your family and friends. It’s a gorgeous album.
“The Penny Collector” is released on Friday April 7th (CECD07).