A cult figure on the British folk circuit in the late 60s, John Cee Stannard was a founder member of Tudor Lodge, whose 1971 LP (released on Vertigo Records) has a reputation of a cult classic. Alongside Stannard, the Lodge included Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on bass and an earlier line-up even included vocalist Linda Peters…who went on to find greater fame as Linda Thompson.
Stannard continued to record as the decades rolled away, but penned surprisingly little himself until finding inspiration in 2011. In 2014, his ‘Bus Stop Blues’, a collection of acoustic based blues tunes recorded with Blues Horizon, found favour upon release with a few blues-oriented websites. The following year, he repeated the same formula on ‘Stone Cold Sober’, an album which so often has an understated style, but also a maturity in its song-craft and a laid back feel, resulting in a record that fuses the blues with Stannard’s folk rock roots and even has an almost country leaning in places.
The twelve song album is bookended by two tunes that have such an old spirit that you might even find yourselves questioning their lack of vintage. Although penned by Stannard himself, ‘I Don’t Want You Anymore’ borrows heavily from Robert Johnson’s ‘They’re Red Hot’ in meter, melody and general shuffling tones. It’s well played, of course, with Stannard’s natural and English accented delivery complimented excellently by a rousing harmonica. Under these obvious leads, a walking beat – provided by an upright bass and understated drum – sets everything off nicely, while a brief acoustic solo rounds out a fun and familiar workout. Much softer, ‘This Rag of Mine’ could have been written by Hoagy Carmichael. The effortless blend of blues and jazz sounds as if it should emanate from a scratchy old 78rpm disc and Stannard approaches the style with a laid back cool. The muchly lauded Eric Clapton tried this sort of thing a couple of times on his eponymous disc from 2010 but – by comparison – his efforts were far flatter…and he couldn’t even be bothered to write his own homage!
The Carmichael-esque throwback carries over into ‘Don’t You Worry None About Me’, a tune with a pleasant live sounding edge. The rhythm section are understated but crucial, bringing a slow but sharp bassline and jazzy, brushed drums together with ease. With a solid backing band, Stannard – with a reedy vocal tone (somewhere between a white blues guru and a country-folk storyteller) appears in his element and his clean and clear guitar picking is completely sympathetic to its surroundings. If on the first couple of listens this doesn’t quite do it for you, it’s worth revisiting. It may be trad; it may sound like something written in a pre-war age, but it’s hard to argue that Stannard has a total belief in the style. Coming from a place even farther back, ‘The Story’ is a downbeat number about a house, a gambler and a doomed relationship. If you can tune into Stannard’s retro musical interests, this track sets a place as one of the highlights; not only because it works a very strong narrative, but the downtempo mood shows off some decent guitar picking and more fine bass work, while a country fiddle slowly soars with a mood of unease. While John Mellencamp has gained plaudits with a trawling of tradition in the twenty first century, Stannard more than proves there are other (overlooked) musicians capable of results just as classy.
In a return to the ‘Red Hot’ ragtime mood, ‘Rum Old Do’ lifts the spirits with a rattling workout that fuses blues and bluegrass, whist driven by harmonica. Throughout this track, Stannard and his chief cohorts Andy Crowdy (double bass) and Julian Bown (drums) pull together in a way that makes them sound more like friends jamming than professional musos laying down a track – it’s very much a fun listen. Despite having a slow and shuffling quality that seems oddly reminiscent of The Mixtures’ ‘Pushbike Song’ during the intro, ‘Poverty Blues’ adds something a little heavier to the album, working a slow blues style with a simple thumping drum providing the rhythm. Stannard’s semi-acoustic picking lends a distinctive style at the core of the piece, while louder electric chords power the main riff. The contrast of the two stringed parts gives the number a real meatiness, while a crying edge to the vocal makes it one of Stannard’s best performances. His English roots are obvious through every line and – as before – this can take a while to adjust, but a companion vocal from Nicole Johnson gives everything a real weight. With a swaggering edge, ‘Right Back At The Start’ is both smart and old-hearted. Driven by a simple bass, Stannard ensures the music doesn’t become too leaden by drawing us into a simple narrative before trading clean lead guitar work with another great harp performance. Lurking in the back, a bar-room piano rings through the more bluesy sounds and a few listens is all that’s needed before this marks out a place as one of ‘Stone Cold Sober’s best tracks. Stretching out to over eight minutes, ‘So Long’ is a slow blues that at first appears languorous but, once given time to settle, shows off a pleasing string line and various bluesy guitar runs. Sure, it probably could have achieved just as much in half the time, but in terms of conjuring a mood, this is hazy late night sorrow, ideal for those backporch moments. Stannard’s backporch might overlook the metropolis of the Southern English metropolis as opposed to a Mississippi Delta skyline, but the intent is the same. ‘Dream The Blues’, meanwhile, goes for something similar but comes up a little short. That’s not to say it’s bad – rather more workmanlike – but even then, JC seems in good voice, while some of the guitar work is pleasing enough in its gentility.
Another belter, ‘Worse Off Than You’ comes with a downbeat and downtrodden air while somehow retaining a positive outlook. Musically, Stannard hits upon a fairly basic but timeless acoustic shuffle and his English accent seems attuned to the storytelling aspects and the gently oppressed. If you’ve stuck with the album so far, this is likely to provide even more enjoyment. The album’s sole cover, ‘Lead Hearted Blues’ (written by Blind Blake) is the closest to “purist” as we get, with a semi-acoustic run through of a number that’s not so far removed from Leroy Carr’s ‘Blues Before Breakfast’. Aided by a finger-picked style, Stannard is able to find a much bigger voice than on much of this album’s material, bringing a bit more belt to each line, while Howard Birchmore adds a mean harmonica. The chord changes may be of a standard, tapping into the period in which it was penned, with the chord changes so repeated throughout the decades they’re instantly familiar, but it doesn’t stop these guys giving it their all and coming up with a winner. Mixing an old r ‘n’ b vibe with a rolling piano and walking bassline, the title track has a lot of energy from the off, sort of like a more natural take on something from the Rolling Stones debut. Adding further to the blues pot, the lead flourishes include a mandolin and a little banjo for good measure and, much like ‘Rum Old Do’, the lyrics may pertain to bad times, but by the time we reach the last lead guitar break it’s clear this performance has also been quite playful.
‘Stone Cold Sober’ isn’t a record that can be recommended if you like your blues amplified and gritty, or heavily indebted to the Chicago electric style as popularised by BB King. On this bunch of tunes – much like ‘Bus Station Blues’ – Stannard plays with tradition and adopts far more of a folk-blues stance. The results are so often familiar, pleasant and very well played even…but, oddly, would probably connect more with a John Hiatt devotee than a blues purist. It’s a record that needs the right setting before its charm becomes obvious, but even more than that, it needs time. Be sure to give it that time…and in turn, it’s sure to creep up on you.
[With thanks to Dave at Red Guitar Music for the heads up and the CD]