Imagine a world where musicians master their instruments and voices by playing (solo and as a group) until they know that their music is good enough for the public to hear. Where musicians get together to play music that they believe in; music that’s passionate and inspired. Where success is measured in emotional response, not midweek chart positions. Where the playing is more important than image, and integrity is more important than overnight success and bread and circuses TV shows. Where bands play live and it sounds better than the vinyl/CD/download because it’s not all about clever production and autotune. Where a singer isn’t some deluded hyper-melismatic Whitney wannabe. Where bands actually respect their audiences. I visited that world two nights ago when I saw Stone Foundation headline the Delicious Junction fifth birthday party at The 100 Club.
After a variety of short support sets, including one from Simon Wells, who was unfairly ignored by most of the audience (despite a guest appearance from SF’s Gary Rollins), it was time for the main event. It was big smiles all round from the audience, and the band, playing their third sell-out 100 Club gig this year; and it was bass player Neil Sheasby’s birthday. The band opened with the title song from the latest album, “To Find the Spirit”, and from that point on it was their night. Stone Foundation doesn’t make any distinction between support and headline sets; the guys just get on and give it the beans. This is a gang in the great tradition of Dexys; it’s not about individual egos, it’s about the big picture and this picture’s a masterpiece where every element counts.
Underpinning the band’s sound is the rock solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Philip Ford; it’s not necessarily fussy, but it provides the core for everyone else to lock in to. They’ve played together for a long time now, and it shows. New recruit Robert Newton’s congas add a subtle new flavour to the live sound, while Ian Arnold’s keys and Neil Jones’ guitar fill out the mid-range and add some melodic flourishes. Neil Jones is one of those singers who sound better live than recorded (and I’m not saying that he sounds bad on the albums). And then there’s the icing on the cake; the horns. Gary Rollins (sax), Spencer Hague (trombone) and Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) are spot on as an ensemble punching in three-part fills but individually they all take solos which fit perfectly with the songs without going over the line into self-indulgence. As an old Stax and Atlantic fan, I’ve always loved the Hammond and horns combo, particularly when it includes the more subtle flavours of trombone and flugel, and these guys are the real deal.
The set was split between songs from “To Find the Spirit”, including the title track, the epic slow groove of “Don’t Let the Rain” and “Wondrous Place”, and old favourites like “No More the Fool” and the stomping “Tracing Paper”. There was even a surprise during the encore as the band motored through a cover of “Jumping Jack Flash” and then it was all over. Oh, and a bit of DJ set from Paolo Hewitt as well; what more do want from a gig?
It’s been a good year for Stone Foundation; “To Find the Spirit” charted well in the independent chart, Paul Weller endorsed it, they’ve had national radio play and Sky Sports is using tracks from it regularly. The band has had support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys and toured as headliners, and with Nolan Porter. They’ve also had a DVD out over the summer, put together by Lee Cogswell and they’re doing a Japanese tour in November. This is a bunch of people who are passionate about their music and willing to put in the hours and the miles to bring it to the public, whatever it takes; I truly admire them for that dedication and I hope their star continues to rise in 2015.
Maybe it’s time to welcome the new soul vision.
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.
There are two albums which were reviewed on MusicRiot on the Top 40 Independent Album chart last week, Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” and Stone Foundation’s “To Find the Spirit”. These albums have a few things in common; they’re both fourth studio albums, they both have guest artists, both were rated as 4* by MusicRiot writers and both feature guest performers and the similarity pretty much ends there. Except that, as Neil Sheasby, bass player and songwriter with Stone Foundation pointed out a few days ago, both albums were in the 30-to-40 section of the Independent Album chart, “To Find the Spirit” at 33, “Blank Project” at 38.
It isn’t a straightforward comparison; Neneh Cherry’s album peaked in the top ten a fortnight earlier while “To Find the Spirit” has just entered the chart in its first week. The interesting story here is the journey that each of these albums made to reach those chart positions. This isn’t a criticism of Neneh Cherry; it’s an achievement to get any kind of significant album sales at a time when the value of music has been so degraded by piracy and the industry has no time or money for artist development. Most of the bands I’ve spoken to recently have only the most tangential contact with the traditional music industry, usually at the distribution end of the chain.
Neneh Cherry was operating on a fairly tight budget with “Blank Project”; it was recorded and mixed in five days (featuring guest appearances from Robyn and RocketNumberNine) by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, generating a certain level of interest in the project outside Neneh Cherry’s own fanbase, which is still reasonably healthy after a long time out of the spotlight. In the weeks leading up to the release there was a significant amount of interest from the trade press and even the inkies in the UK; the physical release was in vinyl and bonus CD form with the CD containing the almost obligatory remixes. So, signs of a marketing budget there. Maybe not a huge budget, but enough to get the album into the mainstream media.
Stone Foundation have been doing their thing for about ten years, building up a local, then national, then international following; putting in the hard graft, basically. The band has played as Stone Foundation and has also backed touring soul singers such as Nolan Porter and Joe Harris, building a reputation and a hugely loyal fanbase. There’s no complicated organisation in place here; no manager or entourage; just seven very gifted and committed musicians (plus long-time production collaborator, Andy Codling) with a total belief in what they do.
“To Find the Spirit” has a few guest appearances too. Nolan Porter, Carleen Anderson, Pete Williams from Dexys and even Paolo Hewitt are all there. The album even has a remix; the Dennis Bovell dub of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which is available on all formats. The promotion campaign was minimal, focussing on social media and a support slot on The Selecter’s anniversary tour, but still the album managed to break into the official Independent Album Top 40.
It would be easy to moan about how much better it was in the good old days when artists got huge advances and only toured in support of an album, but that model just doesn’t apply any more. Most artists now only make money by touring, and a lot of that income is from merchandising. Take a step away from singles charts and there are thousands of talented and hard-working musicians taking control of the recording, marketing and distribution processes (physical and electronic) to get their own material out into the marketplace with very little help from the mainstream media. The MusicRiot writers try to cover as many artists as we can who are working in this way (as do thousands of other websites) but it’s only effective if our readers actually do something about it. It’s so easy to try before you buy these days that any music lover should be able find new artists doing something interesting and appealing if they make the effort. It’s all going on out there but, despite 6 Music’s slightly patronising campaign, it won’t come to you automatically; you have to make the effort to go out and find it.
So I say thank you to Stone Foundation and the other artists and labels we’ve featured recently; The Brothers Groove, Roscoe Levee, Bandhouse Records, Drumfire Records, Ags Connolly, Phil Burdett, Dean Owens, Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson, Noel Cowley, Pete Kennedy, Aynsley Lister, Vera Lynch and the Billy Walton Band. All of these artists are making their own wonderful live and recorded music while doing whatever else it takes to allow them to keep on making music.
Now go out and support them.