We’ve clearly still got some way to go with this bastard virus, and I’m not likely to go easy on preventative measures as we look for a continued safe return to the joy of live music and all that. But if ever there was an upbeat example of what can be achieved against the odds, there it was last weekend in my hometown.
Having caught The Vapors on my old patch and theirs six weeks earlier, I felt reassured returning from Lancashire to Surrey to a venue clearly taking it seriously, doing what it can to help reduce risks, not least through its door policies.
Safely in, among the clientele this time were a couple of mates from way back who’d previously shared bills with the headliners, The Sha La La’s no doubt taking note of where they could also be if there’s any justice. Darron Robinson and John Piccirillo have been on my radar in various band incarnations since I first caught them play my secondary school 39 years ago, and certainly retain the songcraft, the fire and the inspirational belief that should have seen them make it long ago.
They kept the faith and are still hard at it all these years on, despite not receiving the breaks to reach that next level … yet. But here they were checking out a soulful collective that’s done just that, albeit themselves taking a few years to get there.
Stone Foundation know only too well how much hard graft as well as that modicum of luck is needed to build support to that level. In their case, backing from Paul Weller made an impact, but it’s about more than that, and there’s no doubting how committed these Midlands lads have been in a push for success.
Next year marks their 25th anniversary in this configuration, and they’re celebrating that milestone with a 10th LP, due out in February, another put together with Weller at his Black Barn studio, and from the new numbers teased our way seven miles away at the Boileroom, I’d suggest it’s another winner, this octet having set the bar high in recent years.
But before we got to Stone Foundation, we had a more pared back but no less full-on set first from Steve Brookes, this early days co-founder of The Jam not so far off his old territory, treating us to an array of crafted songs from an impressive back and current solo catalogue. And seeing as I hinted at that thin line between commercial and critical success, here’s an example of what you can achieve without making that big league jump, much of the clientele on this occasion no doubt surprised how many solo albums he was dipping into.
You probably know the tale, told so well in his 1996 memoir Keeping the Flame, taking us back to Steve’s 1972/75 spell alongside Buckler, Foxton and Weller in a four-piece version of Woking’s class heroes. But while there were occasional between-song mentions of influential friends in the music business, this is someone clearly not about namedropping. Camberley-based Steve was here on musical reputation, that impressive lived-in voice and classy guitar picking to the fore as he charmed us every bit as much with his songbook as his laidback, easy chat.
My highlights included the atmospheric ‘A Walk in London’, among the numbers featured from most recent arrival, Tread Gently, which it kicks off, and predecessors Vintage Troubadour and Hoodoo Zoo. If you need to catch up, you’ll find those three LPs and two earlier ones on Spotify. Then you can find him out on the road and shell out on the real deal.
There’s always a danger – as was the case on earlier dates of this tour apparently – that punters will talk all over semi-acoustic performers in support slots (singer-songwriter Pete Williams – whose role as the bass player on Dexys Midnight Runners’ stunning debut, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, secures his place in any hall of fame for me – also featured on this tour), but there were enough taking interest to make it work, the chatter not as jarring as on previous visits. And then the headliners took the spiral staircase down from that cramped dressing room to got to work.
I was among those raising an eyebrow as to how Stone Foundation – who I previously caught at Gorilla in Manchester in November 2019 (with my review here) might fit on this stage, let along have room to groove, but they soon showed how. True, we saw little of drummer Phil Ford and percussion player Rob Newton all night, but like those to the right of the stage who couldn’t spot keyboard player Ian Arnold, we were left in no doubt that they were there.
The same could be said of those closer to the bar who perhaps wondered where the SF brass trio – sax player Anthony Gaylard and trumpet players Dave Boraston and Steve Trigg – were. But I’ve been at this Stoke Fields local enough now to know the best place to get the full effect, and they were a joy to watch as well as hear. I didn’t catch friend of SF, Graham Parker with the Rumour 45 years ago, when it didn’t mean a thing if you didn’t have that swing, but this did the trick nicely. What’s more, even if I hadn’t had a commanding view, I reckon I’d have known they were wearing shades all night.
That leaves the two Neils, co-founders Jones and Sheasby in their element, celebrating the end of a successful tour with a sell-out show, far from home. I bought my ticket way back and must admit part of the compulsion to jump in so quick was in case that fella from Ripley put in an appearance. Needless to say, within a month or so it transpired he was playing Sheffield on the night, but I was more than happy seeing his old bandmate squeeze back on stage in his place, in what really must have been a Jam up there.
Yet while space was at a premium – with Brother Sheas almost rooted to the spot when the support act joined them, having to do his running with his fretboard – Jonesy was giving it plenty of shapes, the elation of getting so far into the tour unscathed apparent.
They came on to the Little Anthony and the Imperials heart-searing 1964 single that perhaps partly informed the title of their forthcoming long player, Outside Looking In, that record represented straight off by a take on Melba Moore-fronted recent single ‘Now That You Want Me Back’, Sheas’ deep bass laying it down for a band all the more polished for time back on the road.
From Street Rituals, the first of their albums to truly reach me, there was ‘Season of Change’, and from my favourite so far, Is Love Enough?, ‘Hold on to Love’ and ‘Freedom Starts!’, before a return to 2017’s ‘Open Your Heart to the World’ then the new LP’s splendid Talking Heads-esque title track, our guests firing on all cylinders.
Everybody, Anyone’s ‘Next Time Around’ certainly impressed, with 2020’s ‘The Light In Us’ keeping the groove going and ‘AF–RI–KA’ taking us even further, Steve Brookes soon back up for ‘Help Me’ from that same record.
‘The Limit of a Man’ couldn’t fail to get shoes shuffling, while ‘Carry the News’ then latest 45 ‘Stylin’ led us to 2015 floor-filler ‘Beverley’ and 2020’s sumptuous ‘Deeper Love’, before a stonking take on ‘Waterfalls’, at a time when we all need a little TLC in our lives.
The finish line in sight, July’s single ‘Echoes of Joy’ and Street Rituals closer ‘Simplify the Situation’ took us to the wire, and there was no way they were going back up that staircase yet, needing little encouragement to stay put and kick straight into the encore with Everyone, Anyone opener ‘Sweet Forgiveness’ and last year’s ‘Changes’. And then came the Saturday night party climax, with plenty of zip on Richie Havens’ ‘Going Back to my Roots’. Back down to earth? Not a chance.
Other highlights? How about when Sheas got all emotional about SF’s love for their in-crowd and its unstinting support, only for a yell of ‘Get on with it’. He took umbrage, asking rather curtly if someone out among us had to be somewhere, until t’other Neil stepped in and pointed out that it was actually his drummer who had spoken, those on-stage acoustics clearly confounding us all. That said, the sound was spot on all night where I was. And aother moment? How about that huge smile on the aforementioned bassist’s boat race late on, after gazing out at a sea of moving bodies stretching right back to where I was by the door, all feeling the love.
Perhaps this is what we’ve missed, being sat at home those previous 18 months. Here’s to far more of it in 2022, all being well. Keeping the flame burning.
For all the latest from Stone Foundation, you can follow them via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and their own website, with pre-order details for the new LP here, and details of upcoming live dates, including a trip to the refurbished Koko in Camden next November, here. And for more on Steve Brookes, you can follow him on Facebook and via his own website, with information about live shows here.