It’s always a good feeling when a band or artist you like starts to get a bit of recognition, particularly when you know they’ve put in the hard hours over a long period of time and they’re doing something that they believe in and they’re committed to body and soul. In 2014, things were finally starting to happen for Stone Foundation. After years of serious graft with no industry backing, playing support slots, organising their own tours and self-funding their releases, people started to take notice and they got a bit of radio exposure (Craig Charles helped a bit there). They did support tours with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys and the album “To Find the Spirit” made a dent in the independent charts; even The Modfather was photographed holding a copy. So, where to next?
Well, the next album, “A Life Unlimited”, is out on August 7th, so that’s a pretty good place to start. It would have been so easy to stick with the style that made “To Find the Spirit” successful, but that’s not what these guys do; the new album was always going to move in a slightly different direction, particularly after a few of the personnel changes that are almost inevitable in a large group.
The opening song, “Beverley”, (the theme tune from Alexander Thomas’ short film of the same name) is a tantalising hint as to the slight change of direction. It could almost be a track from the previous album, apart from the congas (courtesy of new member Rob Newton), which infuse a little Latin spirit into the funky cocktail of horns, Hammond and wah-wah guitars. There’s a change of emphasis in the brass section as well; Gareth John filled the trumpet vacancy last year and Adam Stevens has come in on baritone sax to replace trombonist Spencer Hague while he takes a break, both joining long-standing tenor saxophonist Gary Rollins. It gives the brass section a more Stax/Atlantic feel with a greater focus on ensemble playing as opposed to solos. It’s a philosophy which applies to the band generally; Stone Foundation is about eight guys working together to create gorgeous grooves and it works because the egos are reined in and the band is more important than the individual.
The sumptuous ballad “Pushing Your Love”, with harmonies from The Four Perfections, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the previous album, while “Something in the Light” takes a little step forward with the brass section, particularly Adam Stevens’ baritone lines, generating a Memphis Horns feel and the Q Strings adding a touch of velvet to the sting of brass. And that’s all before the Van Morrison-style breakdown with strings, tenor sax and backing vocals from The Four Perfections and Janet and Samantha Harris. Lovely stuff.
“The Turnaround” and “Learning the Hard Way” are real departures for the band. The horn fills have a New York/Cuban feel which weave around Neil Sheasby’s bubbling bass lines and Neil Jones’ guitar to create a sound which is much more New York fusion than small town soul; the kind of thing Southside Johnny and his brass section The New York Horns have been doing so well recently. They’re both irresistibly funky.
It’s the two centre pieces (or the last track on side one and the first on side two if you’re going for the vinyl) which give the clearest indication of the new influences on this album; there’s a bit of jazz in the mix. “Speak Your Piece” is a sprawling epic of a song which starts with handclaps, a piano motif (which is picked up later by the horns) and a five-note bass riff which runs through the song. Even as the song builds and layers are added, there’s always plenty of space in the mix; it never feels crowded as it builds up to a noisy chorus and drops back to piano and bass under the lead before building up again to big horn-driven finale. There’s even a one-note piano solo from Ian Arnold, and if that isn’t jazz, I don’t know what is. “The Night Teller” has a mid-tempo cool jazz feel evoking the cover artwork of Donald Fagen’s classic “The Nightfly” album and features a guest vocal by Graham Parker underpinned by some understated baritone sax. It’s all beautifully played and GP’s vocal works perfectly as a complement to the voice of Neil Jones. “These Life Stories” is a mid-tempo groove built around some laconic brass ensemble playing and delicate electric piano and it’s another example of the ‘less is more’ philosophy; you don’t need flash when a band can play this well together. Even the conga solo is politely restrained.
“A Love Uprising”, the album’s penultimate track, opens up like a 1990 house tune with a simple piano riff and Philip Ford’s four-to-floor kick drum but, within a few bars congas come in to soften the beat before seventies hi-hats and funk guitar, and then brass fills morph the piece into classic New York disco. And who’s that coming in just before two minutes with a rap? It’s Dr Robert from The Blow Monkeys making a guest appearance. Just to add to the Studio 54 ambience, you even get congas and disco whistles; it’s so authentic they knocked back Nile Rodgers when he tried to get in to the session. The closing track “Old Partners, New Dances” is an instrumental piece featuring Ian Arnold on piano and Gareth John on flugel horn, evoking the feel of a jazz club at four in the morning and it’s perfect way to bring the album down for a soft landing after the manic buzz of “A Love Uprising”.
Since the sessions for “A Life Unlimited”, the band has signed record deals in Japan (with P-Vine Records) and the USA (with Spectra Music Group); things definitely aren’t standing still at the moment and, with this album, they probably have the right set of songs to break through. What shines through every aspect of the album is quality; the songs are well-crafted, the arrangements are sensitive and varied and the performances are all superb. Even the artwork by Horace Panter (you are going to buy it on CD or vinyl, aren’t you?) is spot on. Maybe “A Life Unlimited” proves that, in a world where a Glastonbury headliner gets away with out-of-tune karaoke, there’s still room for music created with passion and talent.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7/ 2015.
It’s been a busy year for Stone Foundation. The album “To Find the Spirit”, released independently in March 2014, made a significant impact on the indie charts as the band’s live following increased with their own gigs in Europe and Japan and support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys. With radio support from Craig Charles on 6 Music and endorsement from the Modfather himself, things have been looking pretty good for the band this year. So, how do you keep that momentum going? Well, a few gigs with soul legend and SF collaborator, Nolan Porter, and a DVD as a more permanent memento, would probably do nicely. The gigs have come and gone and the DVD, “Finding the Spirit”, was released on 21 July.
So let’s just rewind a little bit here; Stone Foundation is a bunch of guys from the West Midlands (an area more renowned for heavy metal, to be honest) which formed around the nucleus of Neil Jones (guitar and vocals) and Neil Sheasby (bass and backing vocals) around ten years ago and developed into a classic soul/r’n’b lineup (and by r’n’b I mean Stax and Atlantic, not Jay-Z and Beyonce) with the addition of drums (Philip K Ford), Hammond organ (Ian Arnold), sax (Gary Rollins), trombone (Spencer Hague) and trumpet and latest recruits trumpet (Gareth John) and congas/percussion (Rob Newton). Stone Foundation operates completely outside what’s left of the mainstream music business. On the band’s website, the imagery of the biography is equal parts gang/team and an almost religious evangelism; if you’re thinking early Dexys and The Clash here, then you’re pretty much on the money. Personally, I’m more drawn to the idea of a collective than a gang; the band’s a very tight unit, but they find like-minded contributors outside the unit willing to help promote the manifesto, including writer Paolo Hewitt, Specials’ bass player Horace Panter (who contributed the artwork for “To Find the Spirit”), and videographer Lee Cogswell.
Lee has put together “Finding the Spirit” (described as “a collection of films”) which pulls together various strands of the band’s work over the last few years, combining music videos, a documentary of the 2012 collaboration with Nolan Porter (“Keep On Keepin’ On”), a track-by-track exploration of “To Find the Spirit” with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby, and a record of Stone Foundation’s 2014 Japanese tour (“Tokyo 2014”).
“Keep On Keepin’ On” mixes interviews with the two Neils and Nolan Porter with live footage from The Musician in Leicester and London’s 100 Club and some lovely studio footage of the recording of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” featuring Nolan’s lead vocal; it’s a familiar (but still welcome) story of an artist whose career has been resurrected by the UK Northern Soul scene, but this time with some help from contemporary musicians. The film captures the relationship between Nolan, the band, and their collective audience perfectly, particularly in the footage from The 100 Club.
The track-by-track breakdown of “To Find the Spirit” is enlightening and informative; the interviews with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby give a genuine insight into the way the album came together while emphasising the part played by fate or the collective spirit. The cameos played by Carleen Anderson and Andy Fairweather-Low were arranged through friends of friends, “Don’t Let the Rain” started with a bass riff and a string sound from Ian Arnold’s new keyboard, and the original inspiration for the album and the song “Child of Wonder” came from a prose piece by Paolo Hewitt. It’s surprising to hear that there were question marks over whether “Crazy Love” had a place on the album; thankfully, common sense prevailed there.
“Tokyo 2014” is a collage of impressions from the brief Stone Foundation Japanese tour earlier this year superimposing quick clips of the band meeting their fans over a live soundtrack which includes a particularly raw version of the Booker T and the MGs classic “Time is Tight” by a Japanese band called The Tramp. The technique of using quick cuts between short video clips conveys the feel of continuous motion while the entire piece emphasises the devotion of the band’s Japanese fans.
The final section of the DVD is a compilation of Lee Cogswell’s videos for the songs “To Find the Spirit”, “Bring Back the Happiness”, “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” and “Hold On”. “To Find the Spirit” opens with a quick reference to the Dexys debut album, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” as the lead character tunes across the static of a radio dial before leading into an aspirational story which is shot through with visual and audio Stone Foundation references. “Bring Back the Happiness” plays under a father/son reconciliation story featuring Andy Nyman (who featured in the hilarious Channel Four show “Campus” and “Peaky Blinders”) and newcomer Ben Finlay, who was spotted dancing at a Stone Foundation gig. “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” is a very clean black and white (and silhouette) video of the individual band members featuring multi-screen effects, and “Hold On” is a fairly straightforward studio piece featuring Andy Fairweather-Low guesting on backing vocals. You can have a look at the videos here.
By any standards, this is a very high quality piece of work; if you take into account the fact that this venture has no music business backing, then it’s absolutely exceptional. Lee Cogswell has worked across a variety of styles, including documentary, interviews, live footage, reportage and music video to produce a cohesive piece of work which enhances his own reputation while documenting the rise of a band with an absolute commitment to fulfilling its own agenda. It’s more than a just a souvenir, it’s a lovingly-crafted insight into the workings of a group of people who are making music for all the right reasons. The band is also appearing in a special session recorded for the Craig Charles funk and soul show on BBC 6 Music this Saturday (August 9).
This DVD is worth buying for its musical and visual quality, but also because the people responsible for the creative input actually see some financial reward for their efforts.
Out now. Available from Lee Cogswell.