Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.
It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.
You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.
This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.
This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.
Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.
And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.
It’s unbelievable, really. We’re already halfway through 2015; how did that happen? Well, however it happened, there’s been an awful lot of it. At the start of the year, we made a few predictions about bands and artists to keep an eye on in 2015 and this seems like a pretty good time to have a look at how they’re getting on and maybe add a few more to the mix. So why don’t we start at the beginning because, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.
The first of our hot picks to shake some action in 2015 was the Billy Walton Band with “Wish for what You Want”, their first release on American independent label Vizztone in February 2015 after a series of self-released albums. We’ve been watching Billy Walton live since 2010 and he’s been steadily edging up the rankings. The band’s increased in size as well, from a power trio to a six-piece on the latest UK tour and the addition of sax, trombone and keyboards has emphasised their awesome live power while allowing them to move in new directions. Like his fellow New Jersey artists Springsteen and Southside Johnny (Billy has toured as an Asbury Juke in the UK a couple of times), Billy’s fond of taking the show in unexpected directions and these guys are easily good enough to follow him. They should be back in the UK later in the year, so watch out for them in your area.
Dean Owens is another artist the Riot Squad has been following for some time; well since the release of his 2012 album “New York Hummingbird” anyway. Dean has deservedly been acclaimed by those in the know (including Irvine Welsh) for some time now as a singer/songwriter but hasn’t ever managed to get the wider attention he really deserves; it looks like his 2015 album “Into the Sea” on Drumfire Records may have changed that. It’s generated a huge amount of media attention including a Bob Harris interview and live session for Radio 2 and an appearance on the cult BBC Radio Scotland football show “Off the Ball” presented by Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan. The album’s probably his best yet with some highly personal lyrics and memorable melodies backed up by a great group of Nashville musicians.
Next up was The Kennedys; Maura and Pete Kennedy are also from the East coast of the USA; New York City is their adopted home. They decided to celebrate their twentieth anniversary by releasing not one, not two, but three albums this year and to tour in support of the albums. Two of the albums have already been released, The Kennedys album “West” and Maura’s solo album (with lyrics from poet B.D. Love), “Villanelle” and they’re both exceptionally beautiful pieces of work. Still to come (in September) is Pete’s long-awaited solo piece “Heart of Gotham” a suite of songs inspired by New York City and its inhabitants. Pete’s poetic sensibilities, huge knowledge of the history of American music and quiet mastery of his instrument (or more accurately, instruments) make this another one to look out for.
Well that’s the story so far, but there’s more to come later in the year. Stone Foundation were obviously on the way up in 2014 when we reviewed their album “To Find the Spirit”, but 2015 has seen them providing the title track for the wonderful short film “Beverley”, trekking across Europe, signing record deals in Japan and the USA and recording the superb “A Life Unlimited” album which is released in the UK on August 7 this year. There’s a UK tour to promote the album, followed by a Japanese tour and some festival appearances over the summer. Pre-sales on the album have been very impressive and this looks like the year that Stone Foundation finally become an overnight success. Keeping the faith seems to finally be paying dividends.
Part Two coming soon…
It’s always a good feeling when a band or artist you like starts to get a bit of recognition, particularly when you know they’ve put in the hard hours over a long period of time and they’re doing something that they believe in and they’re committed to body and soul. In 2014, things were finally starting to happen for Stone Foundation. After years of serious graft with no industry backing, playing support slots, organising their own tours and self-funding their releases, people started to take notice and they got a bit of radio exposure (Craig Charles helped a bit there). They did support tours with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys and the album “To Find the Spirit” made a dent in the independent charts; even The Modfather was photographed holding a copy. So, where to next?
Well, the next album, “A Life Unlimited”, is out on August 7th, so that’s a pretty good place to start. It would have been so easy to stick with the style that made “To Find the Spirit” successful, but that’s not what these guys do; the new album was always going to move in a slightly different direction, particularly after a few of the personnel changes that are almost inevitable in a large group.
The opening song, “Beverley”, (the theme tune from Alexander Thomas’ short film of the same name) is a tantalising hint as to the slight change of direction. It could almost be a track from the previous album, apart from the congas (courtesy of new member Rob Newton), which infuse a little Latin spirit into the funky cocktail of horns, Hammond and wah-wah guitars. There’s a change of emphasis in the brass section as well; Gareth John filled the trumpet vacancy last year and Adam Stevens has come in on baritone sax to replace trombonist Spencer Hague while he takes a break, both joining long-standing tenor saxophonist Gary Rollins. It gives the brass section a more Stax/Atlantic feel with a greater focus on ensemble playing as opposed to solos. It’s a philosophy which applies to the band generally; Stone Foundation is about eight guys working together to create gorgeous grooves and it works because the egos are reined in and the band is more important than the individual.
The sumptuous ballad “Pushing Your Love”, with harmonies from The Four Perfections, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the previous album, while “Something in the Light” takes a little step forward with the brass section, particularly Adam Stevens’ baritone lines, generating a Memphis Horns feel and the Q Strings adding a touch of velvet to the sting of brass. And that’s all before the Van Morrison-style breakdown with strings, tenor sax and backing vocals from The Four Perfections and Janet and Samantha Harris. Lovely stuff.
“The Turnaround” and “Learning the Hard Way” are real departures for the band. The horn fills have a New York/Cuban feel which weave around Neil Sheasby’s bubbling bass lines and Neil Jones’ guitar to create a sound which is much more New York fusion than small town soul; the kind of thing Southside Johnny and his brass section The New York Horns have been doing so well recently. They’re both irresistibly funky.
It’s the two centre pieces (or the last track on side one and the first on side two if you’re going for the vinyl) which give the clearest indication of the new influences on this album; there’s a bit of jazz in the mix. “Speak Your Piece” is a sprawling epic of a song which starts with handclaps, a piano motif (which is picked up later by the horns) and a five-note bass riff which runs through the song. Even as the song builds and layers are added, there’s always plenty of space in the mix; it never feels crowded as it builds up to a noisy chorus and drops back to piano and bass under the lead before building up again to big horn-driven finale. There’s even a one-note piano solo from Ian Arnold, and if that isn’t jazz, I don’t know what is. “The Night Teller” has a mid-tempo cool jazz feel evoking the cover artwork of Donald Fagen’s classic “The Nightfly” album and features a guest vocal by Graham Parker underpinned by some understated baritone sax. It’s all beautifully played and GP’s vocal works perfectly as a complement to the voice of Neil Jones. “These Life Stories” is a mid-tempo groove built around some laconic brass ensemble playing and delicate electric piano and it’s another example of the ‘less is more’ philosophy; you don’t need flash when a band can play this well together. Even the conga solo is politely restrained.
“A Love Uprising”, the album’s penultimate track, opens up like a 1990 house tune with a simple piano riff and Philip Ford’s four-to-floor kick drum but, within a few bars congas come in to soften the beat before seventies hi-hats and funk guitar, and then brass fills morph the piece into classic New York disco. And who’s that coming in just before two minutes with a rap? It’s Dr Robert from The Blow Monkeys making a guest appearance. Just to add to the Studio 54 ambience, you even get congas and disco whistles; it’s so authentic they knocked back Nile Rodgers when he tried to get in to the session. The closing track “Old Partners, New Dances” is an instrumental piece featuring Ian Arnold on piano and Gareth John on flugel horn, evoking the feel of a jazz club at four in the morning and it’s perfect way to bring the album down for a soft landing after the manic buzz of “A Love Uprising”.
Since the sessions for “A Life Unlimited”, the band has signed record deals in Japan (with P-Vine Records) and the USA (with Spectra Music Group); things definitely aren’t standing still at the moment and, with this album, they probably have the right set of songs to break through. What shines through every aspect of the album is quality; the songs are well-crafted, the arrangements are sensitive and varied and the performances are all superb. Even the artwork by Horace Panter (you are going to buy it on CD or vinyl, aren’t you?) is spot on. Maybe “A Life Unlimited” proves that, in a world where a Glastonbury headliner gets away with out-of-tune karaoke, there’s still room for music created with passion and talent.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7/ 2015.
So that’s 2014 well and truly put to bed. We’ve had great fun telling you about an interesting and varied bunch of albums and gigs and we’ve even thrown in a few photos as well. I suppose you want to know what delicacies MusicRiot has lined up for you in 2015; well, we’re only five days in so far, but we’re starting to get an idea of some of the music we’re looking forward to this year. Just bear with me a second while I clean the fingerprints off this crystal ball; I knew it was a mistake going for the touch-screen version.
Okay, a couple of predictions to start with. Two very different bands that we love at Riot Towers, Stone Foundation and Federal Charm, are continuing their march towards world domination. Both bands are currently demoing new albums while taking every opportunity to play live as well. Stone Foundation, following the success of the album, “To Find the Spirit”, tours of the UK and Japan and heaps of radio play last year are taking their brand of small town soul to Europe this April with gigs in France, Germany and The Czech Republic. There’s a British tour as well, which will probably feature some of the material from the new album. Federal Charm, after a hectic year supporting the likes of Ian Hunter and Rich Robinson are focussing on studio life for a while but I guess we can look forward to hearing more from them live later in the year; they just seem to get better with every tour. Another of our old friends, Maura Kennedy, is working on a solo album this year as well, although we don’t know about release dates for that one yet. I suspect we also have a new Southside Johnny album this year as well.
As for albums which are definite releases for this year, we’re quite excited by a few of those as well. Our live favourites The Billy Walton Band have secured a deal for the release their album “Wish for What You Want” and that should be coming out in February. Drumfire Records have new releases in the spring from Dean Owens and Phil Burdett (who also has an acoustic album coming out this year. We reviewed Bob Malone’s “Mojo EP” as well as a gig last year and we’re really looking forward to the release of his “Mojo Deluxe” album, probably in April this year. And that’s before we even start on John’s picks for this year.
Keep an eye out here or like or Facebook page to keep up with all of our news this year.
There was a time earlier this year, when I was hobbling around with the help of a crutch, when I thought that I would have difficulty scraping together five gigs that I’d actually seen; how wrong was that? It’s been difficult to narrow this list down to five, so I think there might be a few honourable mentions as well. So, in absolutely no order at all are my favourite live shows of 2014.
Jim Stapley Band at 93 Feet East
Jim Stapley’s debut album almost made my top five albums, but there was absolutely no doubt about this live performance. Jim has a phenomenal soulful rock voice and he has pulled together a superb band to deliver the songs live. This was an album launch gig featuring virtually all of the album “Long Time Coming” (plus a cheeky cover of Rihanna’s “We Found Love”) and, despite atrocious weather and a half-full venue, Jim and the band gave it everything. The songs were strong, the band were cooking on gas, but what a voice.
Towards the end of a very busy year for the band, this was an appearance at the annual Delicious Junction bash and another headline slot at The 100 Club with a set based solidly on the “To Find the Spirit”. All of the band members are great players but, despite the solos, this isn’t about individuals, it’s about the group; it’s the perfect combination of a locked-in rhythm section, keyboards and horns. It was also a chance to see how the new members Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Rob Newton (congas) had bedded in. It’s fair to say that the horns sounded better than ever and the congas added a little bit of icing on the cake. It was a great set from the band and a stomping encore of “Jumping Jack Flash”. Enough said.
Little Devils at The 100 Club
Yeah, The 100 Club again and it’s blues Jim, but not as we know it; Little Devils are fronted by singer and multi-instrumentalist (sax and flute), Yoka. The rhythm section of Graeme Wheatley and Sara-Leigh Shaw (aka the Pintsized Powerhouse) built a solid base for Big Ray’s guitar and Yoka’s vocals and instrumental solos. The quality of the playing alone would put this gig up there with the best this year but this is also great fun; the band obviously enjoy themselves and the audience will always pick up on that. Great performances and big smiles all around the room; that’s a pretty good combination for a great night.
This was the final night of the Ian Hunter tour and the audience was in a party mood. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Federal Charm but they seem to get better every time. They got a huge cheer when they strolled on to the Shepherds Bush Empire stage and powered their way through thirty minutes of melodic blues rock featuring their powerful cover of “Reconsider” before making way for Ian Hunter. What a legend; played for two hours and kept the audience spellbound throughout, and the voice still sounds great. We even got an appearance from Mick Ralphs for the encore. Top night.
Now this sounded like a great idea. 60s legend, and big influence on the Asbury Park scene teams up with Southside Johnny for a UK tour; I’ll even pay for tickets for that. Albany Down, despite a ten-second soundcheck, got the audience nicely warmed up for the main event which was a set from Gary Bonds (with some help from Southside) and a set from Southside (with a little help from Gary Bonds), both backed The Asbury Jukes. As ever, the superb musicians (Jeff Kazee, Tom Seguso, John Conte, Glenn Alexander, John Isley, Chris Anderson and Neal Pawley) fitted together perfectly and reacted instantly to any curveballs thrown by Southside. Seriously great players but they know how to have a bit of fun as well. They’re a great attraction as The Jukes, but Gary Bonds just tipped it over the edge.
It was incredibly difficult to narrow this down to only five gigs and there are a few more which deserve honourable mentions. I saw Vera Lynch three times (including their final gig at The Barfly in Camden and a gig in a Shoreditch shop window), The Kennedys and Edwina Hayes at Green Note and Dean Owens and Black Scarr on Eel Pie Island and all of those were great nights. Here’s to many more in 2015.
So, purely in alphabetical order (by album title) because there’s no way I’m trying to rank these in order of preference. They’re all very different and I can recommend any one of them to any real music fan; these are my five favourite albums of 2014.
Phil Burdett’s latest album (on Drumfire Records) was a complete surprise for me. I’d heard Phil play a solo acoustic set a couple of years ago on a night out with the Riot Squad, but this was a completely different beast. “Dunfearing…” is the first part of the “Secular Mystic” trilogy, which should be completed with the release of parts two and three in 2015. It’s an album that sounds gorgeous; you could just sit and let its mix of folk, rock, country and a bit of jazz wash over you, but a little bit of extra effort and careful listening brings out all of the detail that Phil and the musicians have packed in to it; and there’s a lovely tribute to the late Jackie Leven. After reviewing the album, we also managed to grab an interview with Phil during the summer, which is a fascinating insight into a great songwriter.
By sheer coincidence, also on Drumfire records, was the debut album from Ags Connolly, “How About Now”, which is now also available in a lovely limited edition vinyl pressing. Ags is based in Oxford but his roots are deep in the American South and his genre is a country offshoot known as Ameripolitan. He takes the outlaw attitude of artists like James Hand, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck et al and gives it a personal twist with some very poignant songs. The album was produced in Edinburgh by his Drumfire labelmate, Dean Owens, and works well with full country band arrangements as well as the powerful solo acoustic guitar backing of the closing song “How About Now” (which was a genuine one-take recording).
“New York Horns” – New York Horns
I know; you’re surprised that I’ve picked a jazz album. Truth is that I love to hear a good horn section, and most horn players away from the day job like to stretch themselves with a bit of jazz. The horns in question are John Isley (saxophone), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone), better known as the horn section of The Asbury Jukes, aided and abetted by Jeff Kazee (keys) and Glenn Alexander (guitar). There isn’t a bad, or even a mediocre track on the album and with moods ranging from the blues of “Strollin’ with Sean” through the evocative, mellow “Morningside at Midnight” to the 24-carat soul of “Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, there’s something for everyone.
And continuing on the soul theme, how about some genuine home-grown English West Midlands soul? Stone Foundation has been steadily building up a devoted following for about ten years now, but “To Find the Spirit” may turn out to be the game-changer for them. The band takes influences from all over the soul spectrum to create a sound very much of this century but which appeals to very disparate groups of fans. The album grabbed me from the first few bars with the Hammond and horns intro of “To Find the Spirit” and impressed from start to finish. After 10 months (and seeing the band live three times), the standout song is definitely “Don’t Let the Rain”, driven along by Neil Sheasby’s slinky bass groove but, again, there’s no filler here.
Now the reason this one’s here is that Pete Kennedy (one half of one of my favourite groups, The Kennedys) decided to pay tribute to the pioneers of the electric guitar prior to the rock ‘n’ roll era; the guys who had grab the interest by using technique and melodic invention rather than volume and a thudding 4/4 beat. Pete is a superb technical musician and “Tone, Twang and Taste” is so obviously a labour of love; every song is played with immaculate attention to detail and they all sound like they were great fun to do, particularly Pete’s ukulele version of “Rhapsody in Blue”. The commercial possibilities for this album were always very limited, and that’s one of the reasons I admire Pete so much for producing something that made me smile from start to finish.
You can read the original reviews of these albums on the site complete with all of the links to the songs on Spotify or Youtube; just type the title into the search box and you’re away. Go on, have a listen; they’re all great albums.
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.
For 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.