The musical bond between Neil Sheasby and Neil Jones is as concrete as their band name: Stone Foundation. It needed to be to survive over a decade of trial, error and frequent returns to the drawing board before finding the right direction, one that’s finally led them to Street Rituals, an album that is both rainbow’s end to their journey so far and starting pistol for new adventures to come. Produced by and featuring Paul Weller, its ten tracks realise Stone Foundation’s vision of a vibrant modern UK soul band, the kind who can play with the best of the genre’s American legends including Bettye LaVette and Stax’s William Bell while never losing their own distinctly British identity – the sound of Memphis, via the Midlands. “It’s the same mod ethic as the first Style Council album which had a lot of guests,” says Sheasby, “or Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. That’s sort of the mind-set we have. Making soul music without being a retro pastiche but bringing something new to the party.” “We’re obviously influenced by the music we grew up with,” adds Jones, “but we want to take that music forward. Really, it’s reminding people what modernism is actually about. Creating something for now.”
The two Neils came to soul music from very different directions. Sheasby hit adolescence as the early 80s mod revival reached critical mass, heeding the call of Dexys and The Jam to follow their muse back to Stax, Motown and the infinite riches of northern soul. Jones took a more scenic route, a fan of old skool hip hop whose detective work to decipher the many samples and breakbeats eventually led him to a similar record collection. Despite growing up on each other’s doorstep “along the A5 corridor in Warwickshire”, the Neils didn’t meet until the late 90s at a gig in London, both playing in different bands on the same bill. When their respective groups split, bassist Sheasby asked vocalist Jones if he’d be interested in writing songs together. “That was nearly 20 years ago,” notes Sheasby. “From that point forth we’ve never looked back.”
It was Sheasby who chose their name while reading an issue of the Beastie Boys short-lived Grand Royal magazine, caught by the headline of an article about Sly & The Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark. “It looked good written down,” he recalls, “and at the time I knew how hard it might be finding the right musicians for what we wanted, but that whatever happened it would always be that foundation of me and Neil. So it felt very apt.” Changing line-ups and tweaking their sound throughout the noughties, their commitment and perseverance was finally rewarded in 2011 when Stone Foundation found a fresh admirer in John Bradbury, drummer with The Specials who duly invited them to support the 2-Tone icons on a UK arena tour. “By the time it had finished we’d made new fans all around the country,” says Sheasby. “That was a big stepping stone.”
The next leap up came in early 2014 when they were chosen by the Visit Britain campaign to tour Japan, returning a few months later to play to a 4000-strong tent at the Fuji Rock Festival. As testament to the grass roots support at home, the same year’s To Find The Spirit album, including guest vocals by Carleen Anderson, Andy Fairweather Low and Nolan Porter, managed to crack the UK Top 75. Porter returned on their next, 2015’s A Life Unlimited, alongside Graham Parker and The Blow Monkeys’ Doctor Robert, the album also stirring the keen approval of Paul Weller who had been monitoring their progress for some time. “I think he’d been keeping tabs on us,” says Jones. “When Paul contacted me he said my voice reminded him of Felix Cavaliere from The Young Rascals. He loved our song Beverley, especially its social comment, so I think that’s what drew him in.”
Weller originally approached Stone Foundation to add ideas to one of his own demo ideas but was so impressed by the results he beckoned them to his Black Barn studio in Surrey. “A very surreal moment,” says Jones. “We went in his studio and by the end of the day we had about six or seven things. Paul turned to us and said, ‘I think you’ve got a record here, lads.’ When we asked if we could do the rest with him, he said yes straight away. It wasn’t planned, it just happened. It was incredible to see Paul at work, someone you’ve looked up to all your life, putting so much into our album. He totally immersed himself beside us, the whole way, singing, playing and producing.”
The spontaneous studio chemistry is tangible throughout Street Rituals, the opening Back In The Game setting the tone both in terms of ambience – a buoyant coalescence of strings, horns and soulful rhythm sending Godspeed to the vocal relay of Jones and Weller – and its lyrical themes of community and positivity in the face of social struggle. “That song is like the story of Stone Foundation,” explains Jones. “I was speaking to Paul about the long path we’d been down and how hard it had been. The second verse is really him telling us not to give up. It’s us acknowledging that resilient spirit that’s kept us going, and a message to anyone else never to give up hope.”
“Myself and Neil had a conversation at the very beginning of the album that we wanted to hold a mirror up to the world today,” says Sheasby. “There’s so much going on, so much division, that we wanted to make something hopeful and optimistic, which I think you can hear in all the songs.” An urgency for change quakes through the Temptations-like Open Your Heart To The World and the moody funk of The Colour Of…, likewise the spiritual questioning of Love Rediscovered and the happy Hammond rush of The Limit Of A Man with its infectious Isley Brothers style chorus. The album’s latter half is built around its three big vocal cameos: William Bell on the Muscle Shoals shuffle of Strange People, Weller on the summer jazz swing Your Balloon Is Rising and Bettye LaVette who was so taken with the message of Season Of Change she added a few lyrical changes herself. “She was all over it,” says Jones. “When Bettye LaVette starts making suggestions how to make a record sound better, far be it from us to stop her.”
Bookending its latter trio of guest appearances are the title track, opening with ambient street sounds recorded on Jones’ walkabout in Birmingham (Midlands, though it may as well be Alabama), and the anthemic finale Simplify The Situation, a last call to “wake up everybody” to a soul jazz fanfare spurred by Nile Rodgers-esque guitar. “We really wanted the album to encapsulate that mood of walking through a city,” says Jones, citing Coventry’s Foleshill Road as a personal topographic touchstone. “If you walk down that street you see every element of society, white, Asian, Caribbean, it’s a real melting point, and that’s what Street Rituals is all about.”
For Weller, working with Stone Foundation has been “a privilege”. “I think they’ve made a great bit of work with a strong message, one you don’t hear much about these days,” says Weller. “A very mature, very accomplished album and I’m glad to have been part of it.” Strong, mature and accomplished, Street Rituals is the proudest testament yet to the unbreakable soul brotherhood of Sheasby and Jones. Never has their Stone Foundation sounded more solid.
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