Monday, 7 September 2015

"Stone The Crows/Ode To John Law" by STONE THE CROWS [feat Maggie Bell and James Dewar on Vocals] (2015 Air Angel 2CD Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...




"...Blind Man..." 

Fronted by not one but two stunning Vocalists in Maggie Bell and James Dewar – Scotland's STONE THE CROWS also boasted the guitar talents of Leslie "Les" Harvey (younger brother of Alex Harvey) and the songwriting genius of Keyboardist John McGinnis. I’ve been after their wicked run of four albums on Polydor between 1970 and 1972 on affordable decent CDs for years now – and at long last Air Angel of the UK (and in conjunction with the band) have acquired the tapes and remastered all four back into digital form – and even found space to chuck on four bonus tracks.

This first 2CD reissue gives you their "Stone The Crows" debut and 2nd LP "Ode To John Law" – the 3rd and 4th albums "Teenage Licks" and "'Ontinuous Performance" arrive in October 2015 on another expanded 2CD set (Air Angel SJPCD468). Here are the pious birds of good omen (they’re stoned and all)...

UK released Friday 4 September 2015 – "Stone The Crows/Ode To John Law" by STONE THE CROWS on Air Angel SJPCD463 (Barcode 5055011704633) gives us their first two studio albums onto a 2CD set with four bonus tracks and plays out as follows:

Disc 1 (61:31 minutes):
1. The Touch Of Your Loving Hand
2. Raining In Your Heart
3. Blind Man
4. A Fool On The Hill
5. I Saw America [Side 2]
Tracks 1 to 5 are their debut LP "Stone The Crows" – released July 1970 in the UK on Polydor Super 2425 017 and in the USA on Polydor 24-4019

BONUS TRACKS:
6. Freedom Road (Live)
7. Hollis Brown (Live)
Tracks 6 and 7 are from the "Radio Sessions: 1969-72" – released May 2009 as a 2CD Stone The Crows set on Angel Air SJPCD272

Disc 2 (52:03 minutes):
1. Sad Mary
2. Friend
3. Love 74
4. Mads Dogs And Englishmen [Side 2]
5. Things Are Getting Better
6. Ode To John Law
7. Danger Zone
Tracks 1 to 7 are their 2nd studio album "Ode To John Law" – released February 1971 in the UK on Polydor Super 2425 042 (no USA release)

BONUS TRACKS:
8. The Touch Of Your Loving Hand (Live)
9. Raining in Your Heart (Live)
Tracks 6 and 7 are from the "Radio Sessions: 1969-72" – released May 2009 as a 2CD Stone The Crows set on Angel Air SJPCD272

STONE THE CROWS was:
MAGGIE BELL – Lead Vocals
JAMES DEWAR – Lead Vocals and Bass
LESLEY HARVEY – Guitars
JOHN McGINNIS – Keyboards
COLIN ALLEN – Drums and Percussion

Although the 8-page inlay has new liner notes from Malcolm Dome and includes interviews with Maggie Bell and Colin Allen as well as a few photos – it's a disappointingly slight affair that doesn’t even bother to provide catalogue numbers for the LPs. What you do get is a potted history of the Scottish band arising out of the ashes of The Power who were managed by Zeppelin's Peter Grant. Grant had them change their name because an American group had already nabbed it – and it was he who suggested the much cooler moniker of STONE THE CROWS. A nice touch is that each CD is a picture disc of the album front covers - but the inner gatefold artwork in both cases is missing. There is no mention of who remastered the albums but there is a credit that the material is licenced from Maggie Bell and Colin Allen. The audio is a mixed bag of brilliant clarity one moment followed by awful hiss the next (thankfully the later is more in ascendancy).

The bluesy opening track "The Touch Of Your Loving Hand" (written by Bell and Dewar) is covered in dreadful hiss - which is devastating because it's a stunning six-minute keyboard-lead Soulful Blues song highlighting the magnificent set of pipes on both Dewar and Bell. It even features a sweet guitar solo from Harvey. The Fusion of the Harvey/Dewar composition "Raining In Your Heart" comes at you like Brian Auger meets the Latin rhythms of Santana – it’s brilliant and sounds a lot better than the opener. But then you're hit with an absolute stunner – the 5:12 minutes of "Blind Man" – a Josh White cover version doing entirely in Acoustic Blues. Les Harvey rattles those steel strings while zipping up and down the fretboard in impressive runs. But then Maggie Bells comes at you with 'that voice' – and its Janis Joplin look out baby – there's a new queen in town. It's a stunning Bluesy vocal – the kind of thing that makes the hairs on the back on your neck stand up. They finish Side 1 with a sort of Joe Cocker version of "A Fool On The Hill" – giving The Beatles classic a piano-lead rendition that brings out a sweet Soul in the song.

Side 2 is taken up with one piece – the 17:21 minutes of "I Saw America" - written by Leslie Harvey, Colin Allen and the album's Producer Mark London. It opens with almost Buddy Holly acoustic guitars and then builds Yes-like into a keyboard flourish which is brilliant. At about three minutes it calms down into a slow melody with soft guitars, Maggie's vocals and organ – then back into Genesis territory circa "Nursery Cryme" – back into Blues Rock - onto more Jazz - returns to Prog. And then James "Jimmy" Dewar sails in as Vocalist - what a blast it is...

Maggie Bell's "Freedom Road" (10:32 minutes) and Dylan's "Hollis Brown" (13:05 minutes) are the lengthy 'Live' bonus tracks. Although it doesn't advise where they were recorded – there's no audience response so I'm presuming their BBC recordings. The audio is good – the playing great – and both feel like smartly chosen sonic companions to the album cuts. The dynamic vocal duo of Bell and Dewar rock it out on "Freedom Road" with Harvey tearing up the guitar – but the unwieldy "Hollis Brown" overstays it rumbling welcome.

The second LP opens with a Rocker – "Sad Mary" penned by Keyboardist John McGinnis. It was used as a B-side to the band's first UK 7" single with "Mad Dogs And Englishmen" on the A (Polydor 2066 060, released early 1971). It riffs along in fine form (couple of Zeppelin I touches in there) – but at about 5:25 there's terrible surface noise. That same worn tape background afflicts the beginning of "Friend" until the brilliant keyboard funk kicks in – thereafter the audio is wonderful (bass, drums and vocals). Another keyboard bum-wiggling winner from the pen of John McGinnis is "Love 74" (wrongly credited on the CD sleeve as just "Love"). It ends Side 1 – again the band sounding like a Funk-Rock outfit with American Soulfulness at its AWB core.

Written by Colin Allen and Leslie Harvey – the upbeat "Mad Dogs And Englishmen" is an obvious single – structurally sounding not unlike Dave Mason's “Feeling Alright” as done by Joe Cocker on his "Joe Cocker!" album from early 1970 (see separate review). And again Maggie's vocals are so damn good (I’d forgotten how cool this little song is). The John McGinnis tune "Things Are Getting Better" was chosen as 45 in Germany and Sweden by Polydor with "Mad Dogs And Englishmen" relegated to the flipside – and with its Joe Cocker commercialism you can understand why. Based on the events of 4 May 1970 in the USA - the title track "Ode To John Law" chronicles how the Ohio State Police fired guns into a crowd of longhaired protesting students in Kent State University injuring many but killing four of them. The cops became known as 'pigs' in the USA or in the mind of Colin Allen - 'John Law'. As Maggie Bell sings, "You're a pig...spread your mace in my face..." to a threatening keyboard barrage – the whole song feels deeply uncomfortable throughout (still does). The album ends on the high of "Danger Zone" - a Curtis Mayfield cover version and probably the best song on the album (certainly the most Soulful – huge keyboard chords and tasteful guitar licks). Although it's a set of hugely soulful and accomplished performances from Dewar and Bell – the bonus track BBC Live sessions for "The Touch Of Your Loving Hand" is inflicted with a lot of background noise that dampens this winner (what a shame). But thankfully "Raining In Your Heart" fares a lot better – the band on fire and clearly enjoying boogieing out.

So there you have it – a mixed bag audiowise for sure - but I'm still thrilled these criminally forgotten albums are back on my shelves. Maggie Bell of course went on to a great solo career with Zeppelin's Swan Song label in the mid Seventies and tours to this day while Lead Vocalist James Dewar gave every Robin Trower Chrysalis album a vocal soul they would have been remiss without. After years of genetic medical illness and declining health - he sadly passed away in 2002 aged only 53. I miss him...check out his Rock-Soulful legacy on YouTube.

Stone The Crows – a great band and a wicked legacy. Can't wait for batch Number 2. Even the name makes me tingle...

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