It's good to be back in the saddle again! Recurring viral infections have kept me away from my computer keyboard, so that this is my first "Blues and More" column since Feb. 24. I'm happy to be able to devote it to another top regional blues-based group, Indianapolis's Stone Martin Band, same as I had the honorable pleasure of devoting my Feb. 9 column to Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel.
The Stone Martin Band describes itself as an "eclectic, blues-oriented show band" whose repertoire not only includes modern blues, but also ample soul and funk, and blues classics from the 1940s and early 1950s revamped in contemporary blues and blues-rock arrangements, a la Buddy Guy, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Covered material ranges from Muddy Waters to James Brown, and also includes band originals.
Formed by guitarist Steve Brown and drummer Carl LoSasso in 2006 as an active venue to carry on their musical interests, Stone Martin band members have, collectively, over a century of active professional experience. In addition to Brown and LoSasso, band members are: bassist Matt Knott; primary keyboardist Marty Weaver; and "Mr. Entertainment," secondary keyboardist, acoustic/electric guitarist and percussionist Bob Schnieder. Schnieder and Brown share lead vocals, and Brown, Lo Sasso and Knott form the original core of the band from 2006, with Weaver and Schnieder coming on board in the summer of 2007. Steve Brown's wife Sue used to be a lead vocalist with Stone Martin, but decided to leave the band to work with another group.
Matt Knott is the youngest band member at 30, and has been playing bass for 12 years, and even played jazz at the University of Montana. Carl LoSasso is also drummer with Sindicato, a well-regarded country-rock band that does forays into blues and R&B as well. He's been with Sindicato now for 13 years, and continues with it, along with Stone Martin.
Keyboardist Marty Weaver originally hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and came to the Indianapolis area 15 years ago from Kansas City. His roots are in jazz and blues, but he's played other things besides, working with "whoever employs me." He was in a house band in a club on Indy's Pendleton Pike for six years, and has also played with area artists Jess Richmond, Carl Storie, the Faith Band, and jazzman Dave Bennett. He lives in New Castle, where he also plays organ in his church on Sundays -- starting at 9:30 a.m. sharp, even though he won't get home from a Saturday night gig until 4:30 a.m.!
Little-bit-of-everything Bob Schnieder is a veteran of Indianapolis's popular Caribbean-style show band Dog Talk of the 1990s, and also plays drums in Indy Klez, a klezmer band that plays only occasionally. (A musical footnote here: klezmer is a form of Jewish folk music.) Bob Schnieder, Matt Knott and Steve Brown write the band's original music, with bassist Matt Knott contributing both vocal and songwriting honors on the autobiographical "Crazy Woman," and on "If You Want Me To."
Lead guitarist Steve Brown grew up in a musical family. His father played in local bands, and was a classmate at Crispus Attucks High School with famed jazz educator Dave Baker. Steve's mother sang gospel in church, and as a youth, Brown would sneak into clubs on Indianapolis's famed Indiana Avenue, which in the 1950s and 1960s was a vibrant entertainment Mecca for Indianapolis's African-American community. Here he saw jazz notables who went on to national fame such as Wes Montgomery and Freddy Hubbard.
Brown self-educated himself on the variety of the musical influences that surrounded him--jazz, gospel, blues, soul, rock 'n' roll and R&B, and counts as one of the influences on his music the great European jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The young Brown would also listen late night to Memphis radio station WLAC, where he was exposed to Black masters of the blues guitar such as T-Bone Walker and the three Kings of the Blues--B.B. of course, but also Albert and Freddy. This period, the mid-late 1960s, was a very heady time for African-American music, a time of great blues, R&B and soul.
A very special influence on the young Brown was Indianapolis's patriarch of its blues scene, Yank Rachell, the legendary blues mandolin player, songwriter and singer, who not only lived near where Brown lived, but whose courtly, open and embracing manner encouraged and inspired many aspiring musicians in the Indianapolis area, from the 1960s up to his death in 1997. And like so many others who were touched by Yank Rachell, Steve says of him, "He was like a father to me."
Another idol Steve Brown mentions specifically is Chuck Berry, whom he later had the chance to play behind. Recently retired from 30 years at Allison Transmission, Steve Brown now devotes himself entirely to music. He's a proficient guitarist whose style is reminiscent of Albert King's, but Brown is by no means a mere copycat. Before founding Stone Martin, he was lead guitarist in Indianapolis blues bands The Shades and No Regrets, both now in blues heaven.
Stone Martin is presently working on its first CD, and publicizes on its web site, www.stonematrtinband.com, that copies of Sindicato's most recent CD, The Cord, and No Regrets' last CD, Workingman's Blues, are still available.
This writer saw Stone Martin play at Indianapolis's renowned blues club, the Slippery Noodle Inn, in late January, which made him realize just how much what was expected by audiences in terms of blues had radically changed. Today blues has to directly compete with many genres of music for the audience ear, so that just playing straightforward blues is no longer enough. Not even in blues clubs, for the audiences there have grown up not just on blues and R&B, but also Motown, soul, funk, rock, and rock 'n' roll, and have adopted many songs from these genres as among their favorites.
They don't just want to hear Muddy Waters, or even Buddy Guy, they also want to hear the Miracles, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and of course, white guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton. For blues club owners, they're well aware that not only is the competition rock and hip-hop clubs, it's also karaoke, live DJs, and just stay at home and listen to CDs or MP3s. Which changes what's expected of blues bands and their repertoires: they'd better put some James Brown and Temptations in there among the Howlin' Wolf and Albert King, and had better put on a good show --with lively stage presence, rapport with the audience, and lots of music that keeps up the party and fills the dance floor. The Stone Martin Band can do all of the above, and do it extremely well -- and still be solidly bluesy, soulful and convincing -- whether the tune played be "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "I Feel Good," or "Messin' With the Kid."
The Stone Martin Band certainly had an ample supply of all these qualities when this writer watched their show in the Slippery Noodle's backstage, which is actually three interconnected rooms all receiving the band's music well. Steve Brown and Bob Schneider kept the snappy banter rolling without ever letting it interfere with the music, and the band played the music not only very well, but also with appropriately histrionic flair.
This show band had plenty of good showmanship, which delighted the audience as much as the music. A young woman had a birthday that evening, and the band regaled her with a performance in honor of it of the Etta James/Joe Cocker bawdy tribute to a lover's striptease, "You Can Keep Your Hat On." Marty Weaver's and Bob Schnieder's versatile electric keyboards played in piano, organ and synthesizer modes, and the numbers played frequently featured two keyboard solos. Steve Brown's guitar ranged appropriately over classic blues and rock licks, played straight or with wah-wah pedal, and on a couple of tunes Brown played slide.
The band's repertoire was filled with blues, soul and funk classics, as well as with several originals. Sometimes the arrangements were much like the originals, but other times were done as Stone Martin original arrangements that partook of contemporary blues, soul and funk. Two early classics of the blues, 1945's "Caldonia" from Louis Jordan, and 1954's "I'm Ready" from Muddy Waters, were rocked up in contemporary blues fashion a la Buddy Guy, and the masterful "Shotgun," a major early 1960s R&B semi-instrumental from Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, was done in 1970s-style funk.
On a mellower note were two elegant ballads, "Feels Like Rain," written by Indiana's John Hiatt, and Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey." (And it's well worth noting that Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, a truly classic R&B band, were also Indiana guys, hailing from South Bend, and were one of Motown's earliest signings.) Ray Charles's "Unchain My Heart" made it stunningly into the show, as did numbers from James Brown and Sam and Dave.
Nor was blues forgotten, as in the rendition of Jimmy Rogers's "Rock This House" and other numbers, with Steve Brown's guitar adding blues to every lick he played whatever the genre, throwing in Albert King especially along with Hendrix, and even mixtures that sounded like blues-rock meeting punk. Many of the soul songs were originally done with horn sections, and Marty Weaver took care of that well, using the synthesizer mode on his keyboard to re-create the horn parts. Verdict on Stone Martin that evening: truly delightful.
Most interesting to note is that there was only one cover done that evening from a major white artist associated with the blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Cold Shot." The other covers all came from African-American artists, and among them were many truly classic but alas! little-played numbers that it was so good to hear again -- and hear them done well. But that's part of what makes Stone Martin stand out -- the wide-ranging eclecticism that doesn't overlook a good song, joined with a soulful feel that notes the African-American roots of so much of what is acknowledged as America's cultural gift to the world: the blues and jazz of its African-American people, a music forged in hardship, deprivation and oppression, yet hardy, insightful and honest enough to become the core of all that has been good in popular music for the last hundred years.
Given voice that night by a multiracial band where an African-American and a Jew poured out their souls in the vocals, and backed by three other players coming from the Midwest Heartland. Under the watchful, approving gaze of the three blues giants on the mural in the Slippery Nooddle's backstage area: Yank Rachell, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. With more than just the paint causing them to smile.
George Fish can be reached at .