Monday, April 30, 2012

Stone Axe - Best New Band, 1974 - Tony Reed, MVP

I still remember the first tune I heard from Tony Reed's post Mos Generator brainchild, Stone Axe. I was literally aching to hear something new that didn't make me pine for the past and feeling a bit starved for some fresh hard rock, so who would have figured that what pulled me out of my funk would be a complete throwback to the seventies? There'd Be Days was a cut on a Classic Rock Magazine compilation entitled, Heavy Blues, which the magazine described as, "A multi-coloured, mind expanding sampler of contemporary drug-rock, a smattering of buzz-peddlers from all corners of planet rock with one intention: to take you higher."

That was in August of 2009, and almost three years later, I'm scratching my head and wondering why Stone Axe aren't flying to gigs in their own 747, when I wake up and realize that the times have changed a good deal.

Stone Axe - Captured Live! Roadburn Festival 2011 has just been released on the Ripple Music label, and while it isn't as overdub slick as the best remembered live records from the mid '70s, it is an amazing slice of in-your-face rock and roll. In fact, if it had been released in 1974 instead of 2012, Stone Axe would be flying from gig to gig in a jumbo jet with their name on the side, and Tony Reed would be a household name and worth a fortune.

T. Dallas (Tony) Reed is the band's guitarist, but more than that, he is Stone Axe to a large degree. He writes the songs, he plays all the instruments on most of the band's first two albums, sings lead on some, and the idea behind the band is solely his conception.

"It would be one thing to do a bunch of seventies styled tributes, but the thing is to do them with soul, to get the the feeling and the vibe right," Reed explains. "A song like Turned To Stone, well, some people might think that it might be too close to Procol Harum, but I think it works perfectly - it could have easily fit into that period."

He's right, the song is clearly meant to recapture the vibe of Whiter Shade of Pale, but more than that, it easily could have been the follow up single, and it would have greatly added to Procol's legacy, and that is what Reed is gunning for - not just to recreate the sounds, songs, and bands of rock's golden era, but to actually create music that takes the trip a little further, to keep alive the sound of great rock and roll. When I heard Stone Axe's cover of Cream's SWLABR it was so eerily reminiscent of the original that I had to listen to both back to back. Reed had nailed it. I was especially impressed by his drumming, which is brilliant. In fact, if I have a quibble with the live album, it may just be that Reed is a better rhythm section on the band's studio work.

He states, "I sometimes record covers just to learn, as an educational process. I record everything, so I can see how to capture tones, play drums, sing the right parts - it's very instructional. In fact, I'm currently working on an album of cover tunes from the seventies, and I hope to find a label to put it out, maybe later this year."

Reed has just returned from a very successful tour of the UK and Europe with Stone Axe, and he's already deep into several recording projects. The guy is tremendously prolific - after Mos Generator went on hiatus in 2009, Stone Axe has been his main thrust, keeping extremely busy by releasing two long players (each with great Deluxe versions that include copious extra tracks, and live gems), a multitude of splits with other bands, EPs, and singles, and now the live set from the Roadburn Festival 2011. In addition to all of this, Reed is also working on an as yet unnamed country rock project with his outstanding Stone Axe rhythm section of bassist Mike Dupont and drummer Mykey Haslip. Vocalist Dru Brinkerhoff, a singer who is obviously quite comfortable in many guises, is an integral part of the Stone Axe equation.

"I always knew Dru could sing, from when I had recorded his band The Swinos. They were kind of punky and fast, so a lot of people didn't know he could actually sing, but he's great." Reed said. "Stone Axe would not be what it is without him. He understands every direction I am coming from, and adapts perfectly!"

Brinkerhoff's vocals are raggedy edged, and full of passion and feeling as he brings back memories of Stevie Marriott, David Coverdale, Bon Scott, and Paul Rodgers within moments in some of Stone Axe's catalog, but he still menages to stand tall as his own man. He covers a lot of familiar territory, but more often than not he sounds like someone you may have missed in days gone by as opposed to a mere copyist. His contribution to the band can't be discounted - he's certainly a star in his own right.

His performances throughout Captured Live... indicate that had the band came along 35 or 40 years earlier, Stone Axe would have fitted quite comfortably next to Bad Company and Humble Pie. Between Reed's encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock guitar playing, and Brinkerhoff's wailing, it is easy to shut one's eyes and imagine a day when such a band would be selling out hockey arenas, and collecting platinum records. From the set opening instrumental, Stonin' straight through to the set closer Nightwolf, neither this band, nor this record ever stops, or even comes up for air.

The band sounds like they've eaten and digested the entire catalogs of AC/DC, Bad Company, and Humble Pie with a chaser of Southern rock, and a small dessert of progressive rock. The prog portion of the meal is small, coming in the band's affinity for creating tunes with changing landscapes, and structures. Reed throws in more interesting twists and turns in an hour of rock than most writers do in a career.

I thought that my hearing some prog influence may have been misguided until I recently heard Reed's as of yet unreleased cover of the King Crimson classic, In The Court of the Crimson King. It is an incredible performance, and truly shows exactly how gifted the man is in the studio. Huge keyboards, soaring electric guitars, sublime acoustic flourishes, thunderous drums, and some great vocals (including harmonies).

The most commercial project Reed has worked on in the last year may be his production of the first Saint Vitus studio album in 17 years, and the first to feature vocals by Scott (Wino) Weinrich in 22 years. Titled Lillie: F-65, after the powerful and once popular barbiturate, the album was lauded by Sputnik Music: "The record is as doomy and dark as Saint Vitus can get. A great return to the music scene, each song on the record is heavier, more pessimistic, and bleaker than the previous, making this a must have for 2012." Part of the beauty is Reed's passion for recording on tape. Twenty four tracks down to two, all on glorious 2" tape.

Reed also plays guitar on, and produced the new album by Texas legends, Blood of the Sun, tentatively titled, Burning On The Wings Of Desire. A release date has not yet been announced, but it is still expected out this year.  There's also HeavyPink, another side project that has Reed starring in all roles as an experimental noise rock Phil Spector. If all of this were not enough, a new Mos Generator album is on the stove as we speak.

If this seems like a case of artistic overload, I submit to you that Reed is keen on keeping high quality a major goal, and has succeeded heroically thus far. He's talking about a return to Europe later this year, possibly as an acoustic proposition featuring just himself, and Dru Brinkenhoff on vocals - mostly given to the high cost of carrying a full band and equipment back across the puddle. The economic realities of the recording industry are currently such that in order to afford trips across the ocean, Stone Axe must play a bunch of Stateside shows to pay the tab. It says more about the financial instability of the music business (look at the number of cancelled festivals occurring in the UK this summer, and the large layoffs at Roadrunner Records) than the quality of product, or talent on display at Tony Reed's studio in Port Orchard, Washington. He's issued more quality rock in the last couple of years than have most of the big four record companies (yeah, that's right, there are four major labels left).

Oh yes, then there is the newest venture out of the Stone Axe stable: Stone Free - Stone Axe Perform The Music of Free. The band played several shows in England last month paying tribute to one of the greatest British blues rock outfits of all time, Free, the legendary combination of Paul Rodgers, Paul Kossoff, Andy Fraser, and Simon Kirke. I happened to mention that to Tony that Joe Bonamassa had done some work with Paul Rodgers last year, and I had subsequently suggested to all involved that there should be one more Free record with the three remaining members plus a guitarist to stand in for the late, great Paul Kossoff. I thought, and still think it a brilliant idea, and Reed agreed. Andy Fraser's manager seemed to think it a great idea as well, but that's another story for another time.

Tony Reed, "Oh yeah, that's a wonderful idea, God, would I love a crack at that! We spent a lot of time getting the Free set just right, and it was a lot harder than you would think. A lot of what was great about Paul Kossoff was what he didn't play. Vibrato, air, and silence were a huge part of his sound. We took a lot of time working up those songs, and the sets have been just great."

Another Stone Axe song that I've not been able to go a day without listening to is off of the album, Stone Axe II. Those Were The Golden Years may be the best Thin Lizzy sound-alike I have ever heard. I told Reed that if the current Thin Lizzy can come up with material this compelling, it would be a fabulous thing, as the guitarist has set the bar awfully high. It is a tune on which he plays and sings every note, and it is stunning. I am a huge fan of Thin Lizzy old and new, and I fully expect that their new material will be superb and worthy of their great name, and legacy. Still, this tune takes me straight back to 1976 in a way that few songs, if any, before it have.

There are tons of tunes I haven't mentioned here, because I would have ended up with another couple of thousand words. I would highly recommend that you buy the complete Stone Axe discography, and anything you can find with Tony Reed's name on it. He, and they are well worth it, and you'll be glad you did. 

Stone Axe has a credo: "Outta tune - outta time - a long way from home & outta our minds." I'm only buying half of it. They are as tuneful as hell, and as steady as a Swiss watch. They might not sell, but they can't be bought - they are uncompromising in their personal pursuit of rock and roll.

Long live Tony Reed and Stone Axe.

Great thanks to T. Dallas (Tony) Reed, Stone Axe, and John Rancik at Ripple Music.

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