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.

TitleI turned up at The Flower Pot in Derby after a rather fraught drive up from Ipswich and was hardly in a ‘party on’ frame of mind when I got to the venue so this was going to have to be good to keep me away from the early Horlicks. Mr Grumpy had his Not Very Nice Biro with him.

The Flower Pot is one of those venues that looks like it has been frozen in time since the seventies and is none the worse for that in a stick-to-the-floor sort of way. Right in the middle of the city centre, you walk into the venue straight off the street and into a small room with a low ceiling, small stage, inconvenient pillars for sight lines and a bar which along with the usual slew of fizzy cold stuff sells a range of guest real ales. Apart from a couple of sofas(!) and the mixing desk area, that’s your lot. Feet superglued to the floor instantly and away we go. The Tuts had just started their set. Good name, don’t you reckon? Could mean parental expression of displeasure. Could be a dyslexic nod towards The Ruts.

Don’t reckon I’d call the album ‘Oot Fae The Lads’ if I was thinking of distributing it in Scotland though.

A sparky and enthusiastic set played with verve – if no great dexterity – by a trio of two sisters on guitar, bass and vocals and a drummer. Describing themselves as a ‘DIY band’, which I think is what garage bands used to be when people still fiddled around with cars, they got a polite reception sort of crossing Kirsty McColl with shades of The Cranberries and The Toy Dolls……well, if that’s what floats your boat. Lyrically I got hints they were actually quite fun but the appalling sound certainly made it near – on impossible for them to really get through. They were OK though in a sort of enthusiastic support band kind of way.

Enter The Selecter. Fronted by original band members Pauline Black and Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, these guys are the real deal. Remember, they were on 2 Tone Records and toured with The Specials, Madness, The Bodysnatchers et al. And they’ve got a new album to push for 2015, “Subculture”.

Now from the press release I got upfront of the gig I sort of expected having the new material pushed hard at me and a few of the classic oldies fed in there from time to time in a ‘going through the motions’ stylee. Not so. From the off these guys didn’t seem even slightly phased by the ‘bijou’ nature of the venue – which was absolutely rammed – they just went for the jugular with every tune. Tracks from the new album were seamlessly mixed in with classic Ska tunes and Selecter chart-toppers; “Three Minute Hero” got an early blast through while the crowd went bonkers and I absolutely LOVED their superb rendition of the Ethiopians “Last Train To Skaville”. “This Is England” is a truly uplifting celebration of multicultural living and a rejection of narrow-mindedness and it must be a matter of great irony and some sadness to the band that their audience was over 95% white, over 75% male (and of those, over 50% bald but I don’t see what that has to do with anything. And that isn’t a scientific study, BTW.)

What is very much in evidence is how, for this particular band to have the dynamic it has, Gaps is absolutely central to the sound, chipping in the with all the rhythmic Bluebeat and Trojan vocal tricks which punctuate great Ska. But you just can’t take your eyes away from the sassy, quick and witty Ms Black. She looks a million dollars in that razor-sharp suit, the jerky-rapid skatalitic movements of her head punctuating the piledriver ska rhythms.

And this was at times truly great Ska, “Missing Words” sounded as fresh as a daisy and “On My Radio” was played with a supple, lithe energy. A couple of newer tunes as the 90-minute set helter-skeltered to an end and then “Too Much Pressure” and off.

Encore, anyone? Yes please!

Which included a stunner of a “James Bond” with Gaps fronting in his inimitable style, and then for me a bizarre set highlight – Pauline Black singing an wild and whirling version of Doris Day’s, (I kid you not!) “Secret Love”…..!

I never saw The Selecter early doors but I’m pretty damn glad I have now. ‘Best line-up we’ve ever had’ is a line which is trotted out too glibly by some ‘heritage’ bands but I would doubt if anyone has played this stuff with greater expertise, love and conviction.

It was pretty much OK.

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.

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.

ThumbnailFor one March night in the spring of 2014, the north-west corner of Fitzrovia became a time machine.  Last Friday, the area shifted back thirty-five years; you couldn’t escape the check shirts, Harringtons, black shades and pork pie hats in The Albany and the Green Man.  The reason for this sartorial timeshift was that The Selecter was back in town at 229, The Venue supported by Warwickshire’s best-kept funk secret, Stone Foundation.  Reunion tours and nostalgia gigs, I can take ’em or leave ‘em; The Selecter played a really tight, professional set and had the audience bouncing  to the sound of all the old hits.  The old fans loved it and why shouldn’t they; the performance was probably much better technically than the late 70s/early 80s shows.  They also got a really good DJ set from Rhoda Dakar, which built up nicely to the start of the headliners’ set.

But while we’re talking about time travel, let’s go back to the start of the evening.  The support band chosen by The Selecter for this tour is Stone Foundation from Atherstone in Warwickshire and they are very special.  Stone Foundation’s fourth album, “To Find the Spirit” is out this week.  On the back of years of hard work and touring, the band seems to have become a ten-year overnight success.  The independently-released album looks set to make an impact on the album chart this week and the band is riding the crest of the wave; the band recognise all of this and refer to it during their support set, but really it’s business as usual with maybe a hint of celebration.

And business as usual is a seven-piece soul/funk band playing together as a tight unit and having a great time.  This band doesn’t have an obviously dominant personality; they all work together, the guitar, horns and Hammond combining over the solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Philip K Ford to produce a sound with all of the best elements of sixties and seventies soul and funk.  If you imagine a cross between the Average White Band and Dexys Midnight Runners, then you won’t be far off the mark.  In true jazz club style, there are solos throughout the set from Ian Arnold (Hammond), Spencer Hague (trombone), Dexy D’Angelo (trumpet), Gary Rollins (saxophone) and, occasionally, Neil Jones (guitar).  How often do you hear trombone, muted trumpet and soprano sax solos these days?

The set opened with the new album’s title track, “To Find the Spirit”, and also included “Bring Back the Happiness”, “Don’t Let the Rain” “, “Stronger Than Us” and “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” as well as earlier tracks, “No More the Fool”, “Let the Light” and “Tracing Paper”.  If you want to hear flawless contemporary soul/funk then you should really listen to Stone Foundation either live or on record; you won’t be disappointed either way.  While we have bands like this writing, playing and performing, there’s still hope for the music business.