'Calm the Sea' by Stone BearReview
I'd say with certainty that every artist we mention in this magazine has a significant degree of popularity but some of them are what you might call "musicians' musicians", particularly rated by their peers.
I feel equally confident in assigning Stone Bear to that category so I'm sure that a lot of you will be pleased to learn of the release of their new album ‘Calm the Sea'.
This nine track collection contains songs you'll already know & which we've previously reviewed in their context as singles (the title track, "When You're on the Run", "Bay Tree", "Ole Betsy" and "It's Alright") plus four less familiar ones in "Broken Road", "Train Gonna Come" (though I suspect that this one was a single whose release I missed: sorry), "Come Back Home" and "Let the Light In".
One of the factors which may explain the respect in which they are held (though their musicianship clearly is the chief one) is how they have kept on moving forwards in terms of their sound and original compositions. Now you may think that this applies to many artists who appear in the magazine & you'd be right. However few of them were so fully seen as being part of a purist genre (in their case authentic pre-war blues) as Stone Bear were. Such identifications usually bring stifling expectations from audiences and it's to their credit that they've brought their fans with them & added to them.
As I've chronicled in the years since their debut album, this has tended to be characterised by a switch from the rawer Howlin' Wolf electric style to more acoustic, even downright pastoral, blues, though to be fair that was always part of their set & they still do louder songs!
In these years, other personal & musical commitments have contributed to how songs emerged & what they sound like as drummer Jeff Dennis was not always available for recording sessions. These have for some time been at David John's home studio and he reports how much he enjoys live takes (he has a new eight track recorder too) and quite clearly this approach is responsible for the immediacy, intimacy & authenticity one finds on Stone Bear tracks. With David on guitar & vocals, there are a few textural overdubs of instruments like piano, bass, percussion and slide guitar where absolutely necessary.
This series of developments has long affected his lyrical interests: roads, the occasional train ("Train Gonna Come" is a sequel perhaps to the single "Train" of three years ago), things which have broken, but even more so the gentler & more natural: trees, stones, rain, home etc. These he explores with love from multiple perspectives & so each time he plunges back into a previously visited subject, we can expect greater depth, insight & nuanced detail.
Beyond this, I'm not sure what I can tell you that I have not told you before. The musicianship is subtle & superb. Ignoring the overdubs for a moment, most tracks have four basic elements: voice, guitar, drums and space. Please do not underestimate the contribution of the last one: Stone Bear use it brilliantly & confidently & it adds a sense of the eternal to David's songs which fits the words so well. That the live takes, the intimate recording and this space expose the performances is no problem: exposing them merely brings out their qualities the better.
"Broken Road" has a beautiful chiming riff which manages to form a bridge from the Old West to the Far East (quite an achievement) interspersed with a keening cry on his guitar and an apparent shuffle without end as he not only stumbles constantly forwards along it, though singing at a pace which suggests he's being driven by forces beyond his control.
"Come Back Home" is much gentler & he sounds far more content: even blissed out by having reached haven: maybe it answers "Broken Road" in some way? He certainly recommends the sanctuary of one's own hearth & roots to help cure the stresses and doubts of life: even the echo which gives character to the song (along with Jeff's deft brushwork) suggests the closeness & enveloping comfort of secure space.
"Let the Light In" is so delicate and hushed that one almost feels that one is intruding on a moment of private reflection: again this is a song of inwards facing meditation which acts as a balance to the wide open prairies of the train and road songs. I think David accepts that his life, like that of most of us, requires journeys and hardships without obvious signs of a destination, but given the choice, he has learned the values of stillness, calm, companionship and a sense of belonging somewhere.
This is a fine collection of songs: another for you connoisseurs, but he played me an even more recent song yesterday which though pretty much in the same ballpark as these, may be the epitome of his work to date. Hopefully it will be released soon!