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.

Finding the Spirit coverIt’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.