Let’s start 2018 in the traditional way by dusting off the Riot Squad crystal ball and having a peek into the next few months to see what we have to look forward to. As always, in no particular order.

After an absence of a couple of years to deal with serious health issues, Phil Burdett’s back in business again and firing out creative sparks in all directions. The action starts on Saturday January 27th at The Dickens in Southend with the launch gig for Phil’s latest album, “Psychopastoral”. He’ll be backed by the sublime Phil Burdett Group and the support band will be Winter. But that’s just the start; Phil has big plans for the rest of the year, including recording a double album of the songs written while he was in hospital, working on an art/film project and completing a book of poetry and a novel. We’ve got an interview with him coming up in the near future, so just watch this space. (Breaking news on this, Phil’s currently looking for a new venue for the gig on the 27th after The Dickens closed down over Christmas).

 

While we’re on the subject of grand ambitions, let me tell you about Martin Harley. He’s doing a three week tour of the UK with upright bass player extraordinaire Daniel Kimbro. They work together perfectly as a duo, both live and in the studio. The songwriting’s first class, the playing’s perfect and the harmonies are superb; even the chat between songs is interesting and often hilarious. Anyway, one of Martin’s ambitions is to play the Union Chapel in Islington, so he’s booked it for the last night of the tour on Saturday March 10th and he’s promoting the gig himself. It’s the perfect venue for Martin’s music and the Riot Squad will be out in force to support such a brave venture.

 

Another musical partnership we’ve been following for some time is Dean Owens and Will Kimbrough. Will’s guitar playing is in high demand; I lost count of the albums I reviewed in 2017 that featured Will’s playing, but he’s built a special relationship with Dean that’s led to a full-scale collaboration on their latest album “Southern Wind”. We’ve had some sneak previews here and we’ll be reviewing it in the next couple of weeks ahead of the official release date of Friday February 16 on At The Helm Records. You’ll love it.

 

2017 saw the release of the ‘lost’ PP Arnold album and the announcement she’s going to be making an album this year at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studio. It’s fantastic that “The Turning Tide” has finally been found, but even better that Pat is actually making original music again. And there’s plenty of speculation round the water cooler here at Riot towers about possible guest appearances and collaborations on the new album.

 

Finally, and this is specifically a London thing for the moment, late January will see the launch of Talentbanq, the latest venture for Ray Jones. Ray, former Development Director at Time Out has a passion for music that would shame most journalists and he’s always been willing to put a lot of time and effort into promoting new talent. Now that he’s no longer at Time Out he’s focussing his energies on promoting up-and-coming artists with Talentbanq. We’re still waiting for more details, but we do know that it’s going to be an interesting ride.

 

There isn’t really a theme to this selection, it’s just five photos that didn’t really fit in with the format for the earlier features; they’re a little bit different. Anyway, I like them and you can make up your own minds. We’re hoping to have selections from some of my favourite gig photographers coming up soon, but you’ll have to make do with these for the moment.

Joe Francis (Winter Mountain) @229 The Venue – I’m a huge fan of Joe Francis; he’s a great songwriter, he’s passionate about what he does and it shows in the way he performs. I’d grabbed some good shots from the front at this intimate gig and I was looking for something a little bit different. I went to the back of the room and saw a perfect, almost symmetrical, frame formed by two of the audience. I’m really grateful to both of you.

Neil Jones (Stone Foundation) @Islington Assembly Hall – This gig was one of the highlights of my year. I managed to get a photo pass for a gig where one of my favourite bands was joined on stage by Danny Champ, Dr Robert and Paul Weller. The lighting was a bit strange (even on the official DVD it has a strange colour cast) but there was no shortage of photo opportunities. Neil Jones lived up to his frontman role by creating a few nice opportunities. This was my favourite.

Sarah Rodriguez (The Hallows) – This was my second Hallows gig (they’re very good, you really should go and see them) and I was determined to get some good shots. All three band members are photogenic, but when the singer straps on a keytar and starts throwing some rock star shapes, you know you’ve got the shot. Cheers Sarah.

Totally @The Sebright Arms – This was my first visit to this venue; I was invited along by the band and I was really impressed. You will hear more about them on MusicRiot. The lighting wasn’t perfect, but the band have a great visual identity so it wasn’t too difficult to grab some interesting shots. I liked the contrast between the spots and stripes and the intensity of this shot. I’ll definitely be seeing Totally again.

Wovoka Gentle @Rich Mix – I was alerted to this gig by my fellow photographer Greg Towning, who had been praising this band profusely. He wasn’t wrong, they are sensational. Once again, the lighting was a bit challenging (mostly from behind and moving very quickly), but that’s what live music photography’s all about. You work out the best angles and then try to predict where the lights will go and hope for the best. This one worked for me (and thanks Greg).

I’m not sure that the term ‘single’ means anything in music terms any more. Radio professionals talk about lead tracks from albums, but I’ve got to the point where I just call them great songs. Most of the albums I hear won’t actually have a physical single released from them; it’s twelve songs on iTunes or Spotify. So I’m not picking five favourite singles, I’m picking five favourite songs that I’ve heard for the first time this year, in no particular order.

“Living on Lonely” – Hannah Aldridge – This song is from Hannah’s “Gold Rush” album, which was released this year. I’ve heard Hannah play the title song live over about eighteen months and I was convinced it would be my favourite song on the album (it’s a stunningly good song) but after hearing the album and hearing Hannah play the songs live this year, it’s “Living on Lonely” that has really made an impact. It’s a slow-paced piece dealing with the loneliness of life on the road and the inevitable temptations of that lifestyle. There’s some gorgeous low-register guitar running through the song and Hannah’s vocal is heart-rendingly melancholic. It’s just beautiful.

“I Knew You When” – Bob Seger – When he released “Ride Out” in 2014, it had the feel of a farewell to the music business and there were plenty of rumours that it was Bob Seger’s swansong, and maybe it was, at that time; it would have been a great album to bow out on. Everything changed on January 18, 2016 with the death of his good friend from Detroit, Glenn Frey. It’s taken a while to process, but he’s used the pain and love for his old friend to form the back bone of another great late career album. He’s always been a master of the mid-tempo rock song evoking late fifties early sixties smalltown America and “I Knew You When” is a perfect example of the style with the added poignancy of a personal connection.

“1954” – Hannah Rose Platt – This is one of those that grabbed me instantly: first play. I know it’s four years old, but 2017 was when I heard it first, so it’s going in. I love Hannah’s songs; she has a gift for melody and knows how to tell a story. This is based on a story told to her by a housemate about a care home patient who dressed up every evening to wait for a date that never arrived. Hannah relocated the story from Liverpool to America, added just enough detail to make it feel real and created a heart-breaking little masterpiece. I heard her play it live last weekend and it was just perfect. She has an album coming out in 2018 and I’m certain we’ll be reviewing it here.

Your Balloon is Rising” – Stone Foundation featuring Paul Weller – I have so much admiration for these guys. They’ve done it the hard way without any help (until this year) from the music establishment. They’ve written, recorded, gigged and written, recorded, gigged until they built up a substantial fanbase in the UK, Europe and Japan then suddenly Paul Weller was producing their latest album “Street Rituals” at Black Barn as well as co-writing and making guest appearances. Here’s one of those guest appearances on a beautiful soul ballad that’s absolutely timeless. Weller’s voice works with the song, but even without him it sounds just fine with a Neil Jones vocal.

 

“Tennessee Night” – Ed Dupas – I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of Ed Dupas as a songwriter and a singer. He has a passion for his craft and combines rock and country sounds in a way that reminds me a little of Bob Seger (coincidentally). “Tennessee Night” is the title song from his 2017 album and is a perfect little vignette that evokes “Texasville”, the sequel to “The Last Picture Show”, where the small-town girl returns from the big bad city and there might be a happy ending, or there might not. The answer’s left hanging in the Tennessee night. It’s a classic piece of songwriting from an artist with a true passion for his craft.

If you use Spotify, give these songs a listen. They’re all worth it.

As gigs go, music journalism and photography is about as good as it gets for this ‘wee boy fae East Wemyss’. When you do something for over a decade you’re going to have a few frustrating experiences; what you hope for is that the genuine bangers even up the balance, maybe even tip it into the positive. It’s no exaggeration to say that 2017 has been astonishing year with some moments that would have my eighteen-year-old self wondering how on earth all that happened. But even with the volume anchored at ten, there were some moments when it sneaked up to eleven (‘it’s one higher’). In no particular order, these are some of those moments.

Stone Foundation @Islington Assembly Hall – I’ve been a fan of Stone Foundation since the moment I stuck a promo of their album “To Find the Spirit” in the CD player about four years ago. It hit me with that sucker punch of Hammond and horns from the first bell and followed it up with a hit of pure twenty-first century British soul. I’ve watched as the band’s abilities and sheer bloody hard work have steadily moved them up the rankings. I guess it helps that they’re such a great bunch of people as well.

Their latest album “Street Rituals” was recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studios with Mr Weller guesting on a couple of songs and now they can headline at the bigger London venues. So when they announced a tour gig at Islington Assembly Hall, it looked like a reasonably good punt for a Paul Weller guest appearance, the odds shortening when, collecting my photo pass, I discovered that access to the pit was for the entire set. It wasn’t just limited to one Magic Moment either. Not only did PW join the band to take the lead vocal on the gorgeous “Your Balloon is Rising”, he also appeared later for a cracking version of “What’s Goin’ On” (with a hint of “Something in the Air”). Not only two great performances that might never be repeated, but one of my favourite photos of the year (above). More SF to come…

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes @The Forum, Kentish Town – I first heard Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in 1977 and I was hooked instantly. I’ve never fallen out of love with that voice and the sound of that band (Hammond and horns again, with big rock guitars as well), but I could never have imagined the first time I heard “The Fever” it would mean the start of a long-term relationship rather than a one-night stand. Fast-forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century and things get a bit intense – I was asked to do some green room shots of Gilson Lavis presenting Southside with a pen and ink portrait of himself he’d done a few months before. And then I was asked to interview Gilson about his upcoming New York art exhibition and to take some photos of the gig.

I was in the green room with one of my all-time heroes and his incredible band, shooting the breeze and listening as the band arranged a guest performance with Gilson before being thanked by one of the band for a review I’d written of his side project. HTF did that happen? And then they went on to play a storming set with Gilson guesting on “Key to the Highway”. I still can’t believe it.

Stone Foundation @The Empire – This one’s easy; you can get all the background above. No surprises this time, I knew from the off that Graham Parker was the support for this gig. I’ve always been a huge fan and I was at the gig with my old friend and sometime MusicRiot contributor Steve Jenner and his lovely wife Sue. While I was backstage sorting out my accreditation, I bumped in to Neil Sheasby, bass player and co-songwriter with Stone Foundation, who was also having a ‘pinch myself’ moment because Graham Parker had brought along Dave Robinson, former Stiff Records supremo, who was regaling the band with his seventies music business stories.. One of the things I was sorting out backstage was photo pit access. I mentioned earlier that SF had allowed access for the whole gig in Islington; This time they went one better; they highlighted the songs that would feature guest appearances later in the set and ensured that that the photographers had pit access. That’s proper attention to detail.

The real magic moment came towards the end of the evening with a guest vocal by Graham Parker on his old Ann Peebles cover “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. Magical because of a stunning performance by everyone on stage, but also because GP hasn’t played with a horn section in years and he’s said GP and The Rumour will never play live again. And a big shout to Jalen N’Gonda, the first support act (who was superb in a Marvin Gaye-style) and popped up during “What’s Goin’ On”. These guys know what they’re doing.

Hannah Aldridge & Jetbone @Windlestock – The night after the gig above as it happens with the same audience plus Mrs M, who can go out because it’s not a school night. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She writes powerful and moving songs, she has an incredible voice and she has those cheekbones. I never get tired of photographing Hannah; it’s a different visual image every time, but that bone structure is always there. Anyway, this time she’d brought along Jetbone from Sweden to play a support of their blues-inflected Southern boogie and as her backing band.

I love a chance to photograph artists in different environments and this was a great opportunity. Towards the end of the set Hannah put her guitar to one side (got my interest already), picked up a tambourine (camera in hand) and went into full Janis Joplin mode (jeez, never thought I’d see that). It was a night packed with stunningly good performances (including the opening set by Rebecca Reidtmann), but the tambourine thing made my night.

Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band (private gig) – I had a significant birthday a few days ago and invited a couple of bands, Deep Blue Sea and Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band to play at the event. They were both superb. I’ve seen Dana a couple of times and the band is great, the original songs are superb and she knows how to deliver a powerful cover. Now these gigs are difficult, because audience chatter (seriously frowned upon I serious music venues, and rightly so) is almost inevitable as people catch and are perhaps introduced for the first time. Dana and the band took it in their stride and won over a crowd that ranged in ages from three (my great-nephew, who was completely smitten) to eighty-one (my mum and mother-in-law).
They took a short break after a storming first set and returned for a second set with an audience that was particularly noisy. With no introduction they launched into an almost a cappella (a little percussion) two-part harmony version of the Janis Joplin classic “Mercedes Benz” which completely silenced the audience and immediately dragged attention back to the stage. Unconventional certainly, but they had the audience eating out of their hands after that. I’ve seen a lot of classic pieces of stagecraft, but that was probably the finest.

If you’ve got any moments like those that you want to share with us, message us on the Facebook page or email musicriotboy@gmail.com. And thanks for following us.

stone_foundation_Street_RitualsOK, 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“

 michael-kiwanukaIt’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?”

phill-brownI’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”

josef-leimbergThis 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)

The Get Down

The Get Down

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

 neil-basher-and-neilWe (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…

Rude Boys ScrollerOK I’ll admit it. I’m in a bit of a 2 Tone loop at the moment. As part of “Tales From the Towpath” we struggled up the Coventry canal to, well, Coventry, and I can cheerfully admit I have never seen more rats or prostrate drunks on a section of canal than on the section between the junction with the North Oxford (Hawksbury for all fans of the genre) and the Coventry Basin – but we had set our hearts on visiting the 2 Tone village complete with the Coventry Music Museum. And after an extortionate taxi ride from the Coventry Basin, at which we duly arrived albeit not without incident.

And brilliant it was, too. The guys here clearly have a firm grip on the 2 Tone heritage, but at the same time they realised they wouldn’t pull in the ‘heritage’ funding without the general Coventry music stuff. So along with the 2 Tone saga – probably the world’s most accurate record of the last great working class youth music movement in the UK – you get everything you need to know about Frank Ifield and Vince Hill. Mock ye not; Four UK number 1 toons for Frank. Come back and laugh after you’ve managed likewise and I’ll listen to you. Until then, Look and Learn.

I did wonder if the irony of having his biggest hit being a cover of a toon most favoured by Teutons most likely to bomb your chip shop was lost on our Vince (“Edelweiss”, just in case you missed that one) but I dwell not on such matters.

Incredible number of One Hit Wonders, though. Jigsaw, Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours, King. Remember “Love And Pride”? Thought so. And what about The Primitives? There you go you see. The only area to produce more one hit wonders seems to be Wales. “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”. Anyway. Where was I?

Yes.

So, fully fired up on 2 Tone and having listened to very little else but old Trojan masters on the way up from Warwickshire to Staffs, we happened to chance upon The Swan at Stone. Somewhere between Coventry and here you cross the border into The North. The temperature drops by about five Celsius and it starts to rain with a near-professional intensity, and whereas in the beautiful south, the rain is warm, up here it is cold. I mean you wouldn’t call a town ‘Stone’ if it was in the South, would you. Course not. Stands to reason.

So we stopped at Stone and there are two things which make Stone exceptional. A Mexican restaurant called Chico’s and a superb real ale pub (at least it would be if they could just keep the beer a degree or two cooler) called The Swan which is about twenty yards off the Trent and Mersey canal, which do indeed sweep right though the middle of the town, and tonight they are hosting The Rude Boys, and you can guess the rest.

The Rude Boys have toured incessantly in various guises but are Staffordshire’s only serious 2 Tone /ska band. They start proceedings tonight with a melange of Paul Weller, kicking off with “Peacock Suit” and “That’s Entertainment” before morphing into a whole range of back catalogue stuff including more Jam (eg “Strange Town”), more Weller (eg “Changing Man”) and Style Council (“You’re The Best Thing”).

After the break they’re back with a mix of 2 Toners – particularly courtesy of The Beat and The Specials – and a chunk of true ska beat courtesy of Toots. They were very well received by a pretty full pub, for a Thursday night, and despite the occasional vocal frailty, Hank the bass player knew how to handle a fully-grown Rickenbacker, Ryan the guitar player knew his chops, and Neil the drummer hit the rimshots like a good ‘un. Some may say a classic pub night and not a lot else but for me this is your new British folk music. Make of it what you will. The Rude Boys are taking this into the future and are making a living out of it, and good for them I say.

They’re a good night out, especially if you’re in the mood.

A Life Unlimited TitleIt’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.

DSC_0078_011 TitleImagine 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.