Unearthing treasures: Stone Angel celebrate forty years of music 

40th Anniversary Concert, Assembly House Norwich, 18th October 2014 

‘National Treasure’ is a somewhat overused term that seems to be applied these days to just about any celebrity who’s been around for longer than fifteen minutes. So if we have National Treasures, then why not county ones too?  If there is such a thing as a ‘CountyTreasure’ then surely Norfolk has one in Stone Angel, a band whose music so evokes this unique part of England in all its beauty and bleakness, its mysteries, character and history. 

Norfolk, with its expanse of fields and woodlands, reedbeds and coastline, is a place that can truly be said to exist ‘Between The Water And The Sky’ – the title of Stone Angel’s latest CD.  Its title track was also very appropriately the opening number of the band’s 40th anniversary concert held at Norwich’s Assembly House on 18th October 2014 – pretty much forty years ago to the day that they had made their first live appearance. 

Perhaps as a nod to that long ago debut, the second song of the evening, ‘The Bells of Dunwich’, was one that they played at that very first gig.  It was a key set piece of Stone Angel’s concerts in the ‘70s and was one of the compositions that helped to earn the band’s reputation as pioneers of ‘acid folk’. The song has now made a welcome return to their live repertoire after performing it for the first time since then at their 35th Anniversary concert also held at the Assembly House. 

One is tempted to say that not much had changed over the intervening five years, other than a few extra grey hairs both on stage and in the audience, and certainly there was a distinct feeling of déjà vu as the band arrived to rapturous applause.  In reality though it had been as eventful a time as any in the band’s long history, and it has seen the departure of percussionist Jane Denny (don’t worry, they’re all still talking to each other), regular gigging and also the writing, recording and release of Between The Water And The Sky.  The new CD is a quality product brimming with new material, and its production is lucid and sparkling. Stone Angel have never ‘sounded’ so good on record, and they’ve never sounded any better in live performance than at the Assembly House. 

Geoff Hurrell, Andy Smith, Dave Felmingham and Ken and Joan Saul played with the verve and confidence you’d expect of musicians with real chops and a long history as a going concern.  The two set concert drew on material from across the band’s forty year history and, indeed, pre-history.  Two songs, ‘1901’ and ‘Two Sisters’, pre-date Stone Angel by some years.  The former, which the band re-recorded on the Lonely Waters album in 2004 , originally appeared on Ken Saul’s 1971 solo album Seashells which has just been re-released on vinyl as a special issue by Record Collector magazine.  ‘Two Sisters’ was written by Ken for his first band, Midwinter, in 1973 although it has occasionally appeared in Stone Angel live sets over the years.  ‘Two Sisters’ has now been given a rock’n’roll makeover that might have quite startled the younger Ken Saul – and his audiences too for that matter. 

‘Two Sisters’ was one of the highlights of a remarkable first set that delivered one gem after another.  Old favourites such as ‘Meeting Hill’ and ‘The Cuckoo’ rubbed shoulders with impressive new songs such as ‘Saucy Ward’ and ‘Ordinary Man’.  They also chose to revive ‘St. Benet’s’ from the Lonely Waters album, one of their loveliest and most contemplative songs, before launching into a powerful rendition of ‘Maiden in the Moor’, vocal harmonies weaving a tapestry over an electronic wash of keyboards and guitars and pounding percussion. 

The second set served up more of the same with some fans’ favourites like ‘1901’ and ‘To You My Love’ alongside more new material such as their “Norfolk tri-ology” of songs reflecting the romance, realities and sad demise of the local fishing industry. The fact that nine of the twenty three numbers they performed at their 40th Anniversary concert were new, including one, ‘Jack Valentine’, brand new and as yet unrecorded, illustrates just why Stone Angel are still around in 2014. Their approach to music and music-making has always been adventurous and forward looking. Traditional material is given new life through the band’s own imaginative arrangements, and these can range from a brass band or a consort of viols to C&W slide guitar or early period Genesis! The band also search out previously overlooked source material and have even unearthed an important ‘new’ old source of songs in their very own villageof Filby. 

However, writing their own songs within the spirit of the tradition has always been a critical and key strength of Stone Angel, and it is these songs that set them apart as something special, as a ‘CountyTreasure’.  For these songs capture the spirit of place as much as the spirit of tradition, from ‘The Bells of Dunwich’ forty years ago to the newly recorded ‘Ordinary Man’. This was one of the stand-out performances of the concert and is a song that arose from research into local history. It depicts the plight of labourers and their families down the years and the contempt in which their lives were held by their employers. 

While Stone Angel continue to come up with material as strong as this, songs that can strike a chord with modern listeners, the band’s history is far from over.  The final encore of the night was ‘What Will Become of England’, Ken Saul’s impassioned plea not to forget the lives and music of those old source singers who through their songs had kept people’s lives, memories and stories alive through the generations.  Now it’s down to us to ensure the continuation of those memories and stories and join them with our own for the benefit of generations yet to come. 

Let’s be confident that we’re just five years away from another anniversary concert when Stone Angel will have still more new and old songs to sing for us.  Perhaps for that occasion they should consider reviving another of their back-catalogue classics ‘The Black Dog’, as forty years on there’s clearly still life in the old dog yet…  

Richard Sturman