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.
One of the bands that the Riot Squad has supported for a few years now is Stone Foundation. Live and on vinyl, they are the real deal; great songs, rock solid rhythm section (that’s the stone foundation) and some superb horn arrangements. Founder members and songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby are a formidable partnership and also a pair of diamond blokes. Among other things, Neil Sheasby likes to do a bit of writing as well, and what he writes is always worth reading, so imagine how chuffed we were at Riot Towers when this piece came through less than two hours after we asked him if he’s like to contribute to High Fives again this year. What a star.
Michael Kiwanuka – “Love & Hate“
It’s such a complete piece of work from beginning to end, it’s in no desperate rush to impress, it just unfolds and works its way into your subconscious. It’s also hard to pin down to one genre, it’s a soulful record but equally embraces subtle elements of Rock, I certainly hear a Pink Floyd thing going on in there too.
To encompass all these elements, have a social narrative and then still be an accessible pop record is no mean feat to pull off.
Best album I’ve heard in a few years.
Phill Brown – “Are We Still Rolling?”
I’ve read some great books this year. I really enjoyed Tim Burgess “Tim book two” as it turned me onto a lot of music that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have arrived at.
I was given the Phill Brown book by a friend who thought I’d like it. Phill was (& still is) a recording engineer whose working life in studios started in the mid 60’s with sessions at Olympic Studios including The Stones right through to those remarkable Talk Talk albums “Spirit of Eden” & “Laughing Stock”.
The inside stories on both the artists involved and indeed the creation of the records is fairly priceless. I found it fascinating to read up on the creative process of pieces I adore like the first couple of Robert Palmer solo albums or tales of Traffic and a rather reclusive Stevie Winwood.
Again it put me on a path of discovery, a chapter was dedicated to the making of Murray Head’s 1972 concept album “Nigel Lived”
I’d never heard it, didn’t even know of it prior to opening this book.
It’s like a buried treasure somewhere between “Odyssey & Oracle” and “Dear Mr Fantasy”.
It sold zero and sank without trace.
Josef Leimberg – “Astral Progressions”
This was something that our merch guy Pete had been banging on about for a while but as there is no physical format as yet of the album, it took me a short while to get around to hearing it, but once I did I found myself running back to listen to it constantly.
He’s a trumpeter & composer who has worked recently with Kendrick Lemar & Erykah Badu but has now branched out and created his own thing which, as the title suggests, is a jazz fusion thing. The vocal tracks are pretty amazing too, it is a sort of continuation and development of the style that Kamasi Washington impressed with last year.
It’s a real rewarding listen, powerful 21st century music.
“The Get Down” (Netflix TV Series)
I wasn’t that impressed by the pilot of this but once I locked into the TV series I really thought it worked.
“The Get Down” documents that period of New York City in the late 1970’s just as disco’s smouldering embers are being laid to rest and the City is on the verge of bankruptcy. A new art emerges, as always with the best movements it starts from the streets. The birth of Hip Hop told through the lives, music and art of a young street gang in the south Bronx.
I thought the main actor, Justice Smith, was wonderful, the show had its fair share of critics but I really, really enjoyed it and look forward to picking it up again when the second series returns in 2017.
William Bell, Union Chapel – July
We (Stone Foundation) didn’t really do that many gigs this year as our priority lay with writing, recording and ultimately completing a new album for 2017.
Our appearance as support for William Bell back in July turned out to be an evening that will live long in the memory, not so much for the gig itself but for the fairly surreal circumstances that we found ourselves surrounded by.
Not only did we get introduced to William and have the opportunity to talk at length but we also had the good fortune of rubbing shoulders with both Paul Weller and Nick Lowe who were both in attendance.
I always find it heartening to find that these people are just music obsessives and have principles and motives that are no different to that of our own. I don’t think you ever lose that sense of wonderment, that fan thing. It is fundamentally why we started playing and creating music and it never diminishes even if you’re Paul Weller or Nick Lowe.
Music is an incurable sensation.
Long may it reign o’er us…
When Stone Foundation returned to Under the Bridge as headliners, the day before Chelsea entertained the new champions Leicester City, it was impossible to ignore the football parallels. Stone Foundation might not have won the Premier League yet, but they’re a group of Midlands musicians who work hard at what they do and play as a very tightly-knit team: and they’ll be playing in Europe later this year. The evening’s host and DJ, Robert Elms, had to admit to a bit of embarrassment, as a QPR fan at Stamford Bridge playing the Chelsea theme tune “Liquidator”. But this was a night for putting aside local rivalries to celebrate Stone Foundation’s return to The Bridge.
Following Robert Elms’ first set, the Max Milner Community played a fine support set of soulful rock. The band knocked out some very funky and dirty grooves as Max powered through some originals and even “The Letter” as a Joe Cocker tribute. Great harmonies as well and definitely one to keep an eye on. Time for Robert Elms again for a short set before the main event. A quick check of the stage setup showed that the horn section had expanded again; four horn mics onstage and something you don’t see very often – two flugelhorns. Anyone would think it was a jazz gig.
Stone Foundation; the name’s important. The band’s built on the foundation of writers Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby, and original members drummer Phil Ford and keyboard player Ian Arnold. The horn section has seen a few changes over the last couple of years, but the lineup of Gary Rollins (tenor sax), Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Adam Stevens (baritone sax) seems fairly well established, along with conga player Rob Newton, spicing up the percussion mix. They’re in the process of recording the new album and trying out some of the new songs in a live setting.
The band have built up a fanatical following in London on the back of high-profile support gigs and their own headline slots, and the response as they made their appearance made this feel like a home game for them (despite Neil Jones waving a Manchester United towel to the crowd). The set kicked off with “Bring Back the Happiness” from “To Find the Spirit” and the single “Beverley”; two songs in and the band were 2-0 up and playing a blinder. The pacing of the set was spot on, building up the atmosphere with songs from the last two albums (including “To Find the Spirit” and “Night Teller”) before introducing three new songs (“The Limit of a Man”, “Frame by Frame” and “Back in the Game”) which were all well received by the knowledgeable crowd. And then it was back to the crowd pleasers with the Studio 54-esque “A Love Uprising” (whistles and all) and the old favourite, “Tracing Paper” before ending the set on “Something in the Light” and “That’s the Way I Want to Live My Life”, complete with the obligatory mass singalong.
As for the encore, well, it turned out to be a jazz gig after all. The first piece, “Old Partners, New Dances”, was a four-in-the-morning, empty jazz club instrumental played by Gareth John on flugelhorn accompanied by Ian Arnold. The pacing of the encore was perfect as well; the second song, the new “Street Rituals” was played without horns before the full band joined in for a rousing “Speak Your Piece” deep into injury time. Even Roman Abramovich enjoyed it from the VIP area behind the sound desk. The unfancied Midlanders came to The Bridge and got a result; even Leicester City couldn’t top that.
Stone Foundation are the real deal. They’ve built up a fanatical fanbase (the kind that chants the keyboard player’s name during the encore and actually welcomes new material) by working very hard at their particular soul vision and they’ve done it all on their own terms. It’s still a work in progress; Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby are constantly looking for ways to tweak and improve on what they do (like adding a second trumpet, possibly only for this gig) and each year seems to bring fresh triumphs and fresh challenges. There’s a new album next year and we may even get a few surprises along the way as well. Whatever happens, it’s going to be an interesting ride. Who knows what next season will bring.
You can see the pix from the gig here, and apologies to Neil Sheasby for picking up his Foxes idea and running with it.
Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.
It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.
You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.
This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.
This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.
Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.
And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.
It’s time to get the High Fives under way for 2015 and, in a break with tradition, I’m handing over the opening slot to one of our guests, Neil Sheasby, bass player and co-songwriter with one of The Riot Squad’s favourite bands, Stone Foundation. The band have had a great year with the release of their superb album “A Life Unlimited” (guest vocal from Graham Parker, no less), a Japanese tour and some high profile UK gigs. Neil’s observations on music are always interesting, so it’s a pleasure to let him have the first High Five this year.
A record that pretty much defined my summer, for a few weeks I didn’t play much else. It is actually one of those albums that the more you listen to it, the more it will give you in return. It’s quite a sprawling, challenging recording set over three discs and clocking in at around three hours so it’s hard to digest all in one sitting but its depth, beauty and sheer ambition is unlike any other album I have heard in recent times. It could easily sit alongside the jazz heavyweights such as Coltrane’s output for impulse & Atlantic. Probably more accessible though. It has a timeless quality to it and an underlying spiritual vibe, funky too. I was lucky enough to catch his recent London gig and the playing was just on another level, astonishing stuff. Inspiring. He also led me to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” album (Kamasi plays on it) which is a great modern hip hop record again pushing & re-defining the boundaries of that particular genre.
I think 2015 has been a strong year for new releases and new music in general, it’s been encouraging.I’ve really enjoyed new albums from artists I hadn’t previously heard of like Ryley Walker whose “Primrose Green” album evokes traces of John Martyn & Tim Buckley; also the Julia Holter record is an interesting listen but I must admit the real surprises of the year have lain with the rejuvenation of established arists that have made really unexpected returns to former glories. New Order’s “Music Complete” album was a real eye opener, easily their best since 1989’s Technique. It’s a real triumph; Peter Hook free too! They should be proud of such a complete piece of work after all these years, it was a bona fide pleasant surprise to my ears, I’d about written them off.
Also this year there’s been great new albums from Joe Jackson (“Fast Forward) and Squeeze (“Cradle to the Grave”) that are fit to stand alongside any of their previous highlights.
This is a film about the relatively short life of British Jazz genius Tubby Hayes. It was made by two good friends of mine, Mark Baxter & Lee Cogswell and it’s a fascinating profile and made with much affection for its subject, narrated by Martin Freeman and it includes commentary & interviews with Sir Peter Blake, Spike Wells, Robert Elms, Simon Spillett and Ed Piller amongst others. I’ve known Mark for several years now and from day one he always had a burning desire to create a fitting documentary as a testament to Tubby’s life & music, he’s more than succeeded, I’m so pleased for him & Lee. It’s a fantastic little film and one that had me running for the records again.
Me and a mate recently attended the London launch party for its DVD release and on the train home it had us talking passionately about London & the Soho jazz scenes through the years, the clothes and the clubs, the DJ’s, bands, singers etc.That’s the tell-tale sign that “A Man in a Hurry” film had served its purpose all right.
Released earlier this year The RCA Victor and T-Neck albums all housed together in a 22 CD box set. It spans the Isleys career from 1959 up to 1983 taking in all those classic mid 70’s albums as well as a previously unreleased live album recorded at Bearsville Sound Studios. It’s an absolute beauty and really highlights the often overlooked genius of The Isley Brothers. Ronald, Ernie and Rudolph began with Doo-wop roots and evolved marvellously through classic Soul, Funk and even disco
It’s an incredible collection, once I get immersed in it, I’m in there for days on end. Brilliant stuff.
A compelling & fascinating read by one of my favourite writers, Kevin Pearce. It’s actually the first book I have ever read from start to finish on my phone, it was my companion whilst on holiday this summer. Not many will be familiar with the name of Bobby Scott but it’s probably safe to say that you would have certainly heard his work.
Bobby composed, arranged, sang, produced and performed with countless artists including Marvin Gaye, Bobby Darin, Timi Yuro, Aretha Franklin, Chet Baker, Quincy Jones, Roland Kirk, Deodato, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto and a cast of thousands more. Bobby Scott songs include “A Taste of Honey”, recorded by the Beatles, and the epic “He ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother” which The Hollies struck gold with (also check Donny Hathaway’s miraculous version) The only downer to reading this book is that it will seriously have you running back and forth to You Tube checking out song after song and of course in my case, being a hopeless music junkie, I ended up spending a small fortune on chasing up some of these spectacular sounds for my ever expanding collection.
I also read great autobiographies from Robert Wyatt, Bernard Sumner, Nile Rodgers, and somewhat refreshingly the Italian footballer Pirlo. I was a tad disappointed with the Grace Jones book, thought it would be more telling I think, then again Paul Morley was involved so no surprise I was underwhelmed.
I’m just about to begin Elvis Costello’s “Unfaithful music and Disappearing Ink”; looking forward to it…..
Following successful appearances at Latitude and Dartford festivals over the weekend and with Fuji Rocks coming up a week later, things are pretty hectic for Stone Foundation at the moment in the run-up to the release of “A Life Unlimited” in early August. The album looks set to be their biggest to date and the fanbase seems to be growing by the minute, so it was great to be able to have a quick chat with bass player and co-songwriter Neil Sheasby about the band’s roots and the events of the last year or so.
Allan – So Neil, tell us a bit about the origins of the band.
Neil – It started around the friendship between me and Neil Jones (Stone Foundation singer and co-writer). He was in a band previously that supported a band I was in and I was immediately impressed with his voice and when the band I was in broke up, the first thing I wanted to do was to get a proper vocalist, so we started writing songs together, fifteen years ago probably. But it took so long because we knew we always wanted it to be a heavy-hitting band with the horns and Hammond and it took a long, long time for us to be able to get the right line-up together. We had the vision and the thoughts and the ideas but it took ages to get that line-up and for it to come to fruition.
Allan – The fact that it’s taken a long time, does that keep you grounded about the whole thing?
Neil – Absolutely, we would be anyway, because first and foremost we’re music fans. Both of us have got big record collections and we create for the buzz of it. We’d be doing it anyway whether people were paying attention or not. So we’ll always be grounded really; it doesn’t matter how much media attention we get or how many people come through the door at gigs and buy records, there’s no reason for us not to stay grounded.
Allan – Over the last couple of years in particular, a lot’s been happening for you and it’s gone crazy over the last six months, so how does that feel after all the time you’ve spent grafting at it?
Neil – It’s heartening and humbling and encouraging for us because you know you’re making a connection: you know you’re not fooling yourself really. We try and do the best we can and we try and make records that we really believe in; fundamentally we’ve got to like them. It’s a cliché that you make music for yourself and if someone else likes it, it’s a bonus, but you do want people to like the records and you do want people to make that connection. Fortunately, the last couple of records, especially “To Find the Spirit” found us a really wide audience and I hope the new record “A Life Unlimited” will broaden it; I think it’s our best work to date. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t care if anyone liked it or not; we do. We want as many people as possible to like it. It’s humbling and encouraging and it means we can carry on. If no-one was interested and no-one bought the records there would be no point in us staying together; this keeps us working, keeps us together and keeps us moving forward.
Allan – I think it’s interesting that your fans are a lot like Dexys fans, for example, they seem to be a very loyal bunch and they really buy in to the whole package.
Neil – Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. When I was younger I used to follow bands like Dexys and The Jam around; you wouldn’t just go and see one gig, you’d go and follow the tour around, but there’s hardly anyone that does that now and I think we are that sort of band. You never know what you’re going to get from night to night; I think people see that in us and maybe we remind them of things that they’ve grown up with and that’s a good thing; we’re really lucky to have that fanbase that are loyal and just get what we do.
Allan – I think it says a lot about the respect that you have from other musicians that you can pull in such great guest artists on the albums as well.
Neil – Definitely, but that’s not something that we do just for the sake of it. We’ve been fortunate to work with people like Nolan Porter who came over from America and we were his backing band, but while he was over we did some things in collaboration. People like Carleen Anderson and Graham Parker, they don’t do just anything; they have to like what’s in front of them, what they’re hearing, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
The Carleen Anderson thing “When You’re In My World” was written with that Marvin Gaye duet kind of vibe; that’s how we heard it and we approached Carleen on a whim really. It’s beyond our expectations to be working with people like that, but it’s a massive compliment to what we’re doing that they say yes and get right behind it as well. They believe in what we’re doing as well and they say some very nice complimentary things about our thing and it’s as much of a surprise to us as it is to everyone else; it’s a lovely thing to happen.
Allan – So how did you manage to land Graham Parker?
Neil – Funnily enough, I was at a book launch. I’m really good friends with Paolo Hewitt and I went to the launch of his last book and Graham was there. I just approached him as a fan because I‘m a big fan of Graham Parker and the Rumour and I’ve got all their records. We got chatting and we just hit it off, really. We just started talking, and we never stopped talking so we exchanged emails and numbers. I had a song called “The Night Teller” and it was a bit of a late night phone-in thing like the cover of “The Nightfly” by Donald Fagen, which you mentioned in your review, didn’t you?
Allan – Yeah, I did…
Neil – You got that exactly, nailed on, which really surprised me; it was exactly that, it was a late-night helpline with two people phoning in having a conversation so we needed another voice and I thought Graham’s voice would be absolutely bang-on for it really, so I put the suggestion to him, sent the track and sure enough he went for it. It was one of the bonding things with me and Neil when we started Stone Foundation, we had a few jumping-off points and Graham Parker and the Rumour was certainly one so to have him on our record was fairly incredible really.
Allan – And it sounds great, it really works well for the song.
Neil – As I say, it’s not just for the sake of it. It’s because you can hear it happening.
Allan – One thing that always fascinates me, and I always try to ask songwriters about this, is do you and Neil have a particular creative process, do you always work in the same way?
Neil – No, not really; we collaborated a lot more on this last record. We write separately and sometimes it’s like finishing off each other’s sentences. Neil will have an idea and I’ll think ‘I’ve got this bit that’ll probably work with that’ or I’ll have a song that I haven’t got a bridge for and he’ll have something that just fits hand-in glove, so there’s no real process; we don’t sit down in a room together or anything, there’s various ways it can happen. It can start from a little groove or we can come in with the lyrics first or even the title, as in the case of “Beverley”. We’d had that little hook for a while and we wrote the song around that, so there’s many different ways we work. Also, the band play a part in the arrangements as well. Phil, the drummer, has a great ear for arrangements but there’s no set ways. Sometimes it just happens, when we share the vision and the ideas. It’s sometimes difficult for me and Neil to get the sound out of our head that we want, but the musicians that we’ve got around us now know us well enough to have an understanding and they grasp it really quickly and we get the ideas in our head out and on to the record. We’re very fortunate in that respect.
Allan – The horn section’s sounding really good on this record, although I kind of miss the trombone live, but I guess that’s one of those things about having a big band.
Neil – Well we didn’t want to hide behind the last record, “To Find the Spirit”, so we wanted to make subtle changes. Spencer (Hague, trombone player) played on the last record, but he’s taking a break from the band; he’s having a family and he’s got work commitments. The more the band’s successful, the more the demands of gigging, the more the band’s going through the gears, the more pressure there is on people to give up time to do it because they’re all working guys as well. Spen’s taken a back seat but who knows, never say never, he might be back, but I think it’s nice to have a change with the horns as well and have a different dynamic. We’ve brought in a baritone sax (Adam) and Gareth on trumpet; it’s nice to have a change in dynamic and it’s healthy to keep changing from record to record and I’m sure it’ll change again because it’s inevitable with big line-ups.
Allan – Thanks very much for your time, Neil and good luck in Japan next week.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7.
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.
Whilst this is completely new to me and probably the best album I’ve heard in 2014, it actually got released back in 2008 but pretty much passed everyone by. I first heard the track “Shadowlands” on Jamie Cullum’s Jazz show that airs on Radio 2; my ears pricked up immediately and I instantly sought out the album, which is a gem, not a duff track on it. They use various vocalists and it certainly has a contemporary jazzy feel to it but I also hear echoes of Terry Callier and lots of other stuff going on. It’s destined to be one of those lost classics, certainly worth investigating for sure.
Carleen Anderson at Ronnie Scott’s
I didn’t get to as many gigs as I would have liked to this year due to Stone Foundation’s hectic schedule throughout 2014. The one that really stood out head & shoulders above everything else I saw this year was Carleen Anderson’s performance at Ronnie Scott’s at the start of the year. She is (still) such an underrated talent with an exceptional vocal range, obviously we (Stone foundation) were very fortunate to have Carleen grace our last album where she contributed an amazing vocal to one of our songs called “When You’re in My World“. She is an amazing songwriter and arranger too; her new material is just outstanding, as good as anything she has ever written and I really hope it sees the light of day sometime soon. It was an inspiring evening and one that will stay with me.
“Eminent Hipsters” -- Donald Fagen
I’ve been reading a lot this year, much more so than usual, I have no idea why, perhaps I have been looking for inspiration to kick start my own scribblings again; I’m 12 chapters in to my first book but kind of stalled once again really due to other commitments but I hope to pick up the trail again come the new year and get it finished. This book by Steely Dan main man Donald Fagen was a real treat, his words danced from the pages. It covers all the cool hipster characters that influenced his own inevitable style, it also covers his late college years in New York where he first met Walter Becker his co-founder and musical partner in Steely Dan. It’s a very funny book too, especially in the latter chapters when documenting his time on tour recently with Boz Scaggs & Michael Mcdonald. It brings to life the up’s and down of the anxieties and indignities of life on the road in the most brilliantly humorous way.
This year I rediscovered the joys of the radio. A couple of programmes in particular really inspired me. Ana Matronic’s Disco show that aired on Friday nights for six weeks on Radio 2 was a real winner; she didn’t so much play obvious disco musak in the sense of the naff, cliched sound you would imagine but focussed on the real grooves of that period such as the influential Salsoul sound and some of the orchestral arrangements that people like Barry White popularized with Love Unlimited and also the wonderful world of Gamble & Huff and that whole Philly thing. It introduced me to a lot of new stuff that I hadn’t heard previously like Francine McGee’s “Delirium”; I also ended up buying the whole works, a box set of Philly stuff. Don Letts’ show on 6 Music has also turned me on to a lot of new music too; only last night I heard something by Jaga Jazzist called “Made for Radio” that had my attention from the off. I think it’s great to know that there is still some really thoughtful radio still being aired and made; long may it continue. It’s how I first got inspired, by listening to Peel on a transistor in my bedroom when I should have been doing my homework; I guess in many ways I was………
“Space is the Place” -- Yusef Lateef / Melanie De Biasio “No Deal”
I’ve been gravitating towards a more jazzy sound over the past couple of years. I’ve kind of not lost interest but put Guitar / Rock music on the back burner for a while; it’s not what I want to inform me when it comes to my own writing at the moment. I’m more pre occupied with space in arrangements; this Yusef Lateef track kind of personifies that mind set. I’ve heard a lot of great new music too this year but mainly in a pop vein like the Jessie Ware album & that Jungle single “Busy Earnin'” which I really liked. Also one of my favourite new albums and discoveries of this year has been the Melanie De Biasio album “No Deal…”; she is a classically trained flautist from Belgium who has a tremendous voice too. It’s a great record and one that also exemplifies my love of space in the music. It’s not in a hurry to impress; it creeps up on you. In saying all of this I must admit that I was impressed with Ryan Adams’ spectacular return to form on his last (self-titled) LP; the production and sound of it is incredible. It sounds like “Rumours” which is a tough task to pull off.