Blues, rock and country – they’re labels so simultaneously vague yet culturally ingrained that sometimes they seem to have lost all meaning. Pretty much any guitar based album in existence – and, to some extent, a number of genre-fusing hip-hop and electronic projects too – carry elements of this all-American heritage, be they proudly displayed as centerpiece artistic choices or tucked away as subtle undercurrents. Whether it’s sound, attitude, aesthetic, or a combination of all three … there are certain touchstones guitar music will always have to adhere to. Its just part of the deal, folks.
With this in mind, it’s easy to come to a natural conclusion: that to define a band as ‘blues-rock’ with hints of ‘country’ is to render them somewhat unremarkable. A drop in the ocean. A thumbprint on a skyscraper. In some cases (hell, let’s say in most cases) this wouldn’t be too far from the truth. In the case of California’s foot-stomping avengers The Stone Foxes, however, listeners can rest assured that their sound – while steeped in the vast, winding heritage mentioned above – is far from generic. Let’s put it bluntly: a rock to the head has always been a rock to the head since the first brawl between two cavemen. That doesn’t mean a perfectly-placed rock to the head in 2012 doesn’t carry with it a real fucking impact. Some things just don’t seem to mellow with age.
The Stone Foxes throw out rock with a capital R, blues with a capital B, and country with … well, maybe an odd smattering of uppercase font. Put it all together, and you’ll no longer be interested in literary deconstruction anyway – you’ll be too busy (in the time-honoured fashion of another American tradition) throwing your hands in the air like you just don’t care.
Some places like to bestow flowery names upon themselves; deliberately opaque monikers which say little to nothing about the location itself. California’s Central Valley, on the other hand, pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a valley. Which is central. Enough said.
Hardly surprising then, that such no-nonsense musicians evolved in such a no-nonsense environment. Frontman Aaron Mort grew up in this sleepy part of the Golden State, coming of age alongside brothers Spence Koehler (guitarist) and Shannon Koehler (drummer). The three would later attend San Francisco State University, at which point their reverence for mutual heroes – Bob Dylan, The Band, The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Cream, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Black Sabbath and Neil Young to name but a few (phew) – inspired them to start jamming together.
Voila: a band was born, and began to grow … along with the influences that propelled them. “We all love the blues and the ‘60s and ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll, like Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles,” Aaron explained in an interview with the Santa Barbara Independent. “Collectively, we’re all in love with Bob Dylan and The Band, but individually we’re all in various states of getting into other musicians’ careers – Wilco, Jack White and all of his projects, Ben Kweller, guys like that. We’ve definitely kind of grown in our influences; it’s more bands that are playing now as opposed to bands from so long ago.”
It wasn’t just a love of rock history that saw them through those early days – Aaron’s grandfather was also a renowned producer who was happy to dish out both encouragement and studio space to these fledgling axe-grinders. Once they were joined by bassist Avi Vincour – who recently left the group to be replaced by the equally talented Elliot Peltzman – their creative notions were further solidified. Or to put it differently: now they could really rock.
It’s hasn’t been what you’d call a ‘meteoric’ rise by any means – such things are usually myths anyway, put forward by acts who stumbled into overnight success via blind luck (or extensive record company financing) – but The Stone Foxes have been slaving away non-stop since their formation in 2005 to ensure two things: a rabid fanbase and a double-set of fantastic studio albums.
The first of these albums – the self-titled ‘The Stone Foxes’ – emerged in 2008. A flat-out rocker, it slipped under the radar of much of the mainstream music press, but only helped to crystallise the Foxes as guitar gods in the eyes of their growing audience. Like all gods, however, they needed to round up more converts before they could truly claim their dominion. And that’s just what they set about doing – building a reputation as the live rock party act in SF, drawing in glowing feedback from all quarters. Your beer-sozzled punter who wants to get his rocks off on a Friday night? He loved them. Your serious guitar muso who lives for the riffs? He loved them. Original Blues Brother Dan Ackroyd? He loved them. Although whether or not he kept his shades on during the gig is anybody’s guess.
Anyway: by the time the Stone Foxes hit the release of their second album in 2010, the world was (just about) ready for them. ‘Bears And Bulls’ wasn’t just a rock album – if you were a Zeppelin-head looking for some noise to blow the cobwebs away, here were your twelve new favourite songs. It was guaranteed – your friends were definitely gonna hear all about ‘Mr Hangman’ or ‘Psycho’. The thing is: it was likely that your friends would have heard about them anyway, thanks to a wild reception from the press.
Oh, yeah – no-one was ignoring ‘Bears And Bulls.’ “The band live in the grooves,” enthused Bill Kopp at Muso Vibe, “and play like they mean it.” Bill Sullivan at Rock And Roll Report labelled the album an “instant treasure”, while the University Of Washington Daily went all-out, stating that “if rock ‘n’ roll needs a savior — and sometimes it feels like it does these days — The Stone Foxes make one incredibly compelling case.”
And – if you want to see that case made to its full extent – you really, really need to check out these guys live.
Live shows can often be a bit of a letdown, particularly to those audience members whose familiarities lie with the recorded versions of tracks. Onstage interpretations of favourite tunes can often sound muddled and indistinct, sacrificing cherished aural qualities to a woozy sludge. Proof of this can be found by listening to most live albums (which themselves are usually designed as cash-ins anyway). Sure, there’s occasionally a masterwork like Talking Head’s ‘Stop Making Sense’, but for the rest of the herd the lines are drawn nice and clear: if it was designed for the studio, it’ll sound better in the studio.
Not so with the Stone Foxes.
Their music is worked out live. It evolves live. It’s designed to be played live, first and foremost. The recorded versions are intentional interpretations of the live versions, as opposed to the usual practice of this being the other way around. Songs are debuted before an audience and then make their way to the home comforts of the studio.
A risky approach? In the wrong hands, yes. For The Stone Foxes, it’s an integral part of their craft. “We’ll never be a traditional studio band,” they state. “The songs are worked out on stage and are meant to be played live. All the instrumentation on the recording is the same as it is live.”
It’s this dedication to the live craft that has provided some incredible BAMM.TV performances, in particular from the band’s set at our SXSW Festival showcase in 2011. Their storming performance left an audience utterly stunned, and – as if that wasn’t enough – they also had plenty of nice things to say about BAMM.TV too.
“[Working with them provides] nothing but great things for a band,” Aaron said in an interview with Keyboard Magazine. “They give you great content, and you’re able to use it to get your stuff out there. These guys are pros. They absolutely care about the quality of content. In an era where 90% of live video quality is crappy, what strikes me as extremely timely and relevant is the quality of content they offer. We got lots of attention for Mr. Hangman.” Rightly so – the climbing-in-the-rafters euphoria of that particular number remains a BAMM highlight to this day.
Looking to the future, one of the most satisfying things is knowing that – what with their unique symbiosis between live and recorded music, plus their all-out rock passion – The Stone Foxes are only going to get better and better. Who knows? Maybe one day the frenzied performances we’ve captured so far will look relatively tame. One thing is for certain, though – we’ll still be head-banging in the front row as and when they do.
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