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'Stone Bear' by Stone Bear


Readers may well (I hope) remember   from an earlier review, my enthusiasm for the live act of Stone Bear. I don't half get energised by new music especially when it appears out of nowhere onto my radar & takes me by surprise. I was tipped off to the act by former Style Council & Selecter bassist Anthony Harty who had been recording with them & singing their praises. When I first went to see them, after a number of excellent cover versions (this was a pub gig), a number unknown to me really hit me with its originality, power & energy of performance. When I asked at the break about it, they told me it was an original, but were not planning to play many more that evening. I'd like to think that my reaction played some part in the fact that the second set was virtually all blistering originals which set the house ablaze.

It is that set which has now emerged from the studio as their newly released (today to be precise) debut album "Stone Bear". This band don't muck about: the music is direct to the heart like a rapier, so there are no needs for frills nor deception: a simple title & the sleeve (pictured below:  design by Matteo Cuellar Vega, & photography by Jeff of the band) simply says "Stone Bear". What more do you need to know?

The core band is David John on guitar, harmonica & vocals with Jeff Dennis on drums and vocals, augmented on record by Anthony's bass.  "Stone Bear" was recorded at Gospel Oak Studios, produced by the band themselves with engineer Barry Bayliss & Mike Exeter (who has engineered Black Sabbath) helping with the mix.

The home of this music is the blues, but definitely the blues from a pre-world war two starting point: organic and reeking of the southern states in feel & authenticity. You can hear in David's songs echoes of Howlin' Wolf & Son House but without the intervening filters of so many interpretations. You may spot hints of Hendrix etc, but as much as anything the band are going back to the same well Jimi drank from. "Red Morning" and "Wine On the Table" for example sound like they were written & being played somewhere down in the Delta.

So what of these songs? Well there are fifteen of them & all very fine indeed. The process of live refinement and getting the studio sessions right have paid off in presenting the already well crafted songs. "Down in the Rain" is arguably my personal favourite live & very neatly exemplifies one of my reasons for appreciating the album so much. So often I have heard cracking live songs only to later hear recorded versions where the production has muted the qualities the audiences liked. Not so here. The band have apparently decided to reproduce their live impact & to me that is greatly to their credit. There are no compromises, nor punches pulled. David's voice has a world-weary bluesy huskiness throughout which some producers may well have tried to process, but which frankly would weaken this sort of material & sell it short. It reminds me rather of Paul McCartney deliberately stretching his voice on "Oh, Darling"... though these songs are considerably heavier in tone.

They describe themselves as a "rockin' two piece", which while accurate, fails to tell the whole story as they groove as well as rock (and indeed they strut too: check out "Walkin'") and "Rock Me" has a fine funk edge: one of the tracks where the addition of Anthony's bass has a profound effect.

Another highlight which those listening to the record will latch onto is "Where Do We Go From Now" which you can also check it out on this video before you buy the album:

Much of the album has the power I have alluded to, but it would be unfair to paint them as purely electric & loud: as with the previously mentioned "Red Morning" & "Wine On the Table, the delicate "Broken Stones" is acoustic and shows off their melodic side as does "Wish Him Well" and these dynamic variations not only show off their range but also enable you to listen the album in one go more easily: such is the intensity of this music, were it not for the switches between electric & acoustic, the medicine might be too strong to swallow in one for some...

A few more specific track references for you then: " That Train" is a classic of the railroad blues genre: a spiky nod to ‘Smokestack Lightnin'' and another which struts its stuff compellingly.

"River" is another one I particularly liked: possibly the most original sounding cut on the album with a rock feel, yet impossible to compare with any other song I can think of (though that might be my limitations as a critic, but I prefer to think of it as a credit to Stone Bear). Excellent

"Rollin' Down the Smoke" ploughs a yearning groove with perhaps the most interesting vocal performance on the album with David's shifting dynamics.

"Stoney Road" features another powerful vocal and is perhaps the closest ‘Stone Bear' comes to the classic rock style.

But enough of me: go and buy the album & make your own judgement. I think you'll like it & I think you'll like catching them live too. They have made an enormous impression on me almost instantaneously & since hearing about them from such an eminent source as Anthony, I have heard more praise from other very experienced local musicians who do not give out such  lightly.

They can go far: they ought to go far. I hope they do.

Catch Stone Bear at The Fat Pug on 2018-02-24  
Social media     Stone Bear    


Walking the dog; we chat to Paul Swanson about learning and teaching guitar


Fearlessly challenging the boundaries of community journalism, I'm chatting to Paul Swanson while being hassled round Leamington's Jephson Gardens by the most assertive Jack Russell in Warwickshire.  With his indestructible Gibson Blueshawk, Swanner is well respected as the energetic guitar mainspring of the excellent Sam Powell Blues Band. However, today we're talking about his other mission, helping the next generation of local guitar talent to develop their chops through technique, timing and a disciplined approach to practice. 

I ask Paul about advice developing guitar players. He thinks about this briefly while I do the responsible dog-owner thing with a little black bag.  Then he reminds me that learners are often told, "Here is a set of notes, keep bashing away at them and you will get them". However, as Paul says with a wry grin, recalling part of his own journey as a player,

"I had 10 years of putting CDs on, blasting along with them thinking I sounded like my heroes, and getting absolutely nowhere.  If you're doing things in a way that doesn't make you better, you could keep doing that forever and never see any improvement."

This gets me wondering how important it has been for Paul to reflect on his own experiences, both learning and teaching. 

"It cuts both ways and I've picked up on a lot of ideas through teaching that I took to my own guitar practice.  Using them in my practice cemented down the ideas and showed that they worked for me the same as for my students, the same as the next guy.  If it works for everybody then that becomes the foundation for a system, a set of rules you can apply to what turned out to be basically any situation.  I've never found a situation I couldn't apply this systematic approach to." 

So I ask him just how his teaching style helps students reliably improve their playing without that quiet desperation of directionless bashing.  It turns out that the key is systematic and unhurried attention to the mental and physical mechanics that underlie the music.

"Like everything I do on guitar, it's all about reducing music to the nuts and bolts level.  I aim to present things in a way that means, if you do it like this you WILL get better". 

"Bashing away could mean a million different things to a million different people but it generally means doing it in a fairly unstructured fashion and hoping that you get better as opposed to expecting that you will get better." 

Of course, there's a smarter approach that breaks complex musical challenges into units small enough to analyse, learn, ‘debug', and, ultimately, perform with accuracy confidence and feeling.

"I'll approach any problem the same way, which is to isolate the issue, get the student to the stage where they can repeat it correctly and monitor it to make sure they're getting better.  If they're not improving, we'll work out why not, attempt to correct it and try again.  It's essentially trial and error but with 100% purpose and 100% structure."

A good example here might be separating out technique for the left and right hands.

"One big benefit is in chopping things down so you're only focusing on the left hand or the right hand - divide and conquer I guess.  For example, with beginner/intermediates, one major issue can be that they want to watch both hands at the same time.  This means they end up playing what I call head tennis, i.e. looking right to see which string they're about to hit with the pick, then looking left to see what the fretting fingers on the left hand are doing, then right again and so on.  A good way to avoid that is to simplify things and make one of the hands easy enough that they don't have to look at it.  So as part of our investigation we might focus fully on the right hand for a bit by muting out the left hand strings, basically turning the guitar into a crude drum machine where you're only getting clicks from the strings, or we might find a way to simplify the right hand enough that the student can focus purely on what the left hand is doing." 

We get talking about the importance of slowing down when learning new skills. What is the right speed to practice a challenging phrase?

"The speed the student can execute it correctly!  If that speed means it takes 10 minutes to do 4 notes, that's the speed it needs to be kept to.   Of course human nature says, everyone wants to do it faster than they can but the trick is really to remove any concept of musicality from it and view it purely as a technical challenge, can you repeat these movements correctly enough times that things start to stick in the right place in the brain?  That's the key to making things easy and I've never found anyone it doesn't work for." 

Now the conversation moves on from speed to timing.

"Think of your foot tap as the driving force, certainly in practice and hopefully in performance.  Every piece of music has a beat and the foot tap is what I call your ‘rhythm muscle' on display!" 

"The challenge is, can you count out loud and tap your foot correctly while playing this piece of music?  I'd always been aware that guitar books recommended tapping your foot while you play but they never explained how to get to be able to do it correctly and until ten years ago I'd never thought too much about it.   When I began working with students on their foot taps I began spotting major problems with my own and so all the techniques that worked in lessons to improve students' foot taps, I took away and applied to my own practice.  I found the same thing for me as for them; if you approached it in a certain manner you would get better at it."  

One of Paul's distinctive contributions to guitar tuition is Taplature, a representation of guitar music that combines not only the fingering but also the matching foot movements. There are some strong benefits to including the foot tap. It adds the rhythmic information missing from standard tablature but more importantly, it helps the student feel and learn the groove that makes for a committed and assertive performance.

I suggest that some students may be more talented than others. Perhaps they are better coordinated or have stronger concentration?  Or can this systematic approach help any student? 

"From my experience, yes. If they humour me by following instructions we can always get someone doing something they couldn't do previously. My experience is that everyone improves at about the same rate, though most think they're the exception to this and that things are harder for them." 

At this point I want to know about the difference between a weekend warrior and guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix or Steve Vai. 

"Good question! And I'm pretty sure Stevie Ray couldn't answer that.  I don't think the guys with the natural talent necessarily understand what they're doing differently.  Another big aim of mine with students is to define what that difference is." 

"It definitely ties in with the old saying that an amateur practices something till they can do it but a professional practices something till they can't do it wrong. So an amateur is happy just to get through something, well maybe not happy, but that's all they can do and they don't understand how to move to the next level."

"By pulling something apart right down to the bones you can spot problems and say ‘Here's the difference', maybe someone's pull-off isn't quite so clean, they're not hitting a note bang in time because of the physical awkwardness of getting to it - so by defining what you want to improve at you then have a chance to deal with it.  There's an actual problem to work on as opposed to, ‘I'll keep doing it and hope to get better." 

I ask Paul how students can be sure that they are genuinely making progress.

"There are ways to measure anything on guitar.  The big picture measurement is to record yourself, file it, come back to it sometime down the line and record it again.  Comparing the two recordings lets you know whether your practice time between the recordings has been put to good use or wasted." 

"It's useful to be able to monitor progress on a much smaller scale and I teach students to measure anything and everything they're working on.  Getting better at a lick becomes a bit like beating a high score and measuring things means instead of having to hope, we know for sure whether things are improving."

Over a coffee in the excellent Aviary Cafe, I look for some general advice to ensure quality practice. While sneaking a biscuit to the scrounging mutt, Paul recommends three simple principles: 1. Slow down!  2. Break down!  3. Exaggerate!

"Break down is the one that I'd say people overlook the most. i.e. they insist on trying pieces of music that are too big for them to take in with the detail required to get it to the place where it becomes easy, or it means that they overlook too many of the important details so that it never sounds the way they want it to even when they have it learned." 

"Slow down is an important one. The point there is, as I've mentioned before, if it takes 10 minutes to play something correctly, that's how slow you need to go. So people think slow is a bit slower than the record speed but it might need to be a fraction of that, and zero miles per hour if necessary." 

"Exaggerate means to make things harder in practice than they need to be to just play them.  So, when it's time to perform something, it's easy because you've previously pushed it to a higher level in practice.  One of my favourite ways to do that is to try playing something at twice your normal volume which forces both hands to work harder." 

So, now we've walked off breakfast and reduced the formerly feisty terrier to a cutely snoozy pooch, I ask Paul about opportunities to study with him.  He says he is always able to take on keen students either as home visits or via Skype.  Lessons are very much adapted to the individual needs of students.

"It's typically, ‘What would you like to work on?' and then find a way of adapting it into my preferred format so as to put in front of them the problems they likely were not aware of but were always  blocking their way forward."  

"Pulling things apart and digging a whole lot deeper than they had done before." 

If you're interested in working with Paul, you can contact him through his website, Old Swanner Guitar Tuition. As a ‘graduate' myself, I can strongly recommend his teaching. He has a unique way of blending a relaxed manner with a disciplined focus on training hands, feet and mind to work together to deliver a clean and confident performance.

Web     Paul Swanson    


Lorna Dea At The Fusilier


Lorna Dea has taken over hosting the Big Help Music Showcases at The Fusilier In Leamington and The Bear in Rugby.  On Friday 16th of this month she had not one but TWO artists bail out through having the bug that is going round. However we need not have worried, such is the depth of talent at Big Help Academy that we had a full evening of entertainment.


Lorna Dea herself not only performs Motown and Soul classics, but writes her own songs too. Her second EP recently charted at number five in the i-tunes R&B/Soul Charts earlier this month and the title track "Comfort Zone" was selected as "Track of the week" by BBC Radio Leicester. She has appeared on BBC Introducing in the East Midlands too. Topping all that is the news that on 14th March, she will be performing two half hour sets to twenty thousand concert fans at the O2 arena in London supporting Paloma Faith.  She is a regular and popular artist at The Fusilier. I am sure that her warm personality and talent will keep the fans at The Dome royally entertained.


Lorna started off her set with one of her originals, "My King" which featured on her first EP issued a year ago. This one of my favourites of her songs as I have an affinity with the message contained therein. Naturally she also included the songs off her latest in a set that captivated the audience.


Abz Winter has a voice of such power that it sends a frisson though those present at any of her gigs. Her opening number was The Zutons' "Valerie" which alone was miles better that another performer's efforts on prime time TV the following night! Alesha Keys' "If I Ain't Got You"  preceded a triumphant "I, (who have nothing)" This song, which has been recorded by a plethora of British and US stars, from Shirley Bassey, to Lisa Minelli, even Donny Osmond, actually started out as an Italian song, "Uno Dei Tanti." It took a couple of years before an English version appeared in 1963.


There were Goosebumps all round as Abz held the extended power note for an seemingly impossibly long time  at the end of "I Know Where I've Been" from the musical Hairspray. Perhaps the lower register at the start of the song could have done with coming up half a tone, but once it got going it was magnificent. At fifteen, perhaps it is a little ahead of time for Abz to be considering such things. but in Megan Trainor's "Dear Future Husband", she is laying out the ground rules for a future marriage. No gig featuring girl singers would be complete with out an Adele song and Abz duly obliged with "When we were young." Every time I see her I like this girl more.


Trinity Trappett is a BHM protégé who is learning her trade, She had spent an exhausting day prior to the gig in the studio in a one to one song writing/producing session with a very able producer. She is gaining confidence all the time. A Paloma Faith song appeared early in her set with "New York" the song of a love rival which was a city was delivered well by  this young teenager. She also visited The Rhianna, Sean Mendes and Britney Spear song books, before giving a lively performance of another Paloma Faith song, "Stone Cold Sober".  She returned to home soil for what I considered to be her best number on the night, Gabrielle Aplin's "Please Don't Say You Love Me."


One of the most attractive and accomplished acts on the bill was Kieran Taylour. He accompanied himself on guitar singing a variety of covers and a couple of his own original works. I was particularly taken with his song "Daddies Girl" Kieran's experience, he is now in his twenties, showed through when he gave fine performance of Nina Simone's  dramatic "Feeling Good." It takes a certain amount of confidence to tackle such an iconic song for a Friday night pub crowd. I have to say that this confidence was not misplaced. Ed Sheeran's "Perfect," was ...well, perfect. I first encountered this young man at the BHM Christmas Concert in St. Andrew's Church, where he was  stage manager, although he did do a couple of songs himself. It is no wonder her is in demand for weddings and family gatherings, he has the necessary skills to carry them off with ease.


The Fusilier continues to hold these showcases once a month and will also be the venue for possibly a couple of Folk On the Water Festival concerts during the first week of July.       

 Lorna Dea      Abz Winter      Kieran Taylour      Trninity Trappett    


Ross Darby news


A whole lot of great news just in from Ross Darby I'd like to share with you.


He is releasing his solo EP (via 14 Records) on 30th March, with a launch gig that night at the Town House in Leamington


However, you can catch him prior to that on February 26th in Coventry at The Tin, when he'll be supporting "Into the Ark" who have appeared on ‘The Voice' (Joe Dolman will also be on the bill)


You may also have heard a new track Ross wrote called "The Road" played by Brody Swain on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire Introducing (17th February 2018) which features both the Folly Brothers (a band not unknown at the Town House) and Ellie Davies.

Catch Ross Darby at The Tin on 2018-02-26  
Web    Social media     Ross Darby     The Town House Inn    


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Leamington Spa








Abba tribute







AC/DC tribute


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