Sunday, September 13, 2009

Stonehoney - House Concert Review - Russ and Julie's House Concerts - September 12,2009

Well, I could write one of my usual long-winded reviews, or I could sum up the Stonehoney concert at Russ and Julie's last night in only three letters. WOW! This quartet of singer/songwriters put on an amazing show featuring great tunes, incredible harmonies, impressive instrumental skills and just a whole lot of old-fashioned fun. And, I guess while a three letter review may give you the gist, I hope one of my rambling reviews may give you the additional info you folks need to make you want to run out and see this act live and buy their CD. I strongly recommend both courses of action!

This was a concert I had really been looking forward to and as the date approached my anticipation just grew. First of all I found the group's story compelling; four singer/songwriter types from various parts of America meet up in LA, form a "songwriters circle" where they played around with each other's songs, becoming a "band" in the process, despite the intentions of all of them. You can't WRITE plot lines this good! And then a few weeks ago, we saw Dan Navarro performing with John Batdorf and saw that Stonehoney had backed up Dan on his first solo CD, done live at McCabe's in Santa Monica. The fact that this was a favorite group of both Dan and his musical partner , Eric Lowen, was a ringing endorsement in my mind. And of course this was to be at Russ and Julie's, where we are continually delighted by music we had never heard of before and have learned to trust implicitly. Then throw in the fact that the show was booked solid so early that an afternoon show was added, an occurrence that was unusual for most house concerts. Clearly there was something going on around here!

So here's the cast of characters you're about to "meet". Start with Shawn Davis, the one native Californian in the cast but from such a remote rural area it could have been Mars. His career arc had brought him from playing and singing back up in various bands to a successful career as a frontman/songwriter on the club circuit to staff songwriting with heavyweights in Nashville, and ultimately back to LA and Stonehoney. The songwriter's circle began at the home of our next character, Nick Randolph, whose story includes growing up in first Boston then San Francisco, successful stints touring in bands, a debilitating wrist injury in martial arts training threatening his ability to play, his recovery and then a successful solo career. The last pair of characters are a pair of East Coast imports (like myself). Dave Phenicie grew up in the DC area, played the club circuits all over Maryland and Virginia, writing all along. He then moved to LA as a session player and touring sideman to array of country and alt-country acts, did a solo album and then this group. The last of the four, Phil Hurley, hails from Potsdam, NY originally. He played the upstate NY area in bands with his brother, Steve, and then on to Boston and then Seattle, getting side-tracked from his own music by a successful stint as a sideman for acts like Tracy Bonham, Fountains of Wayne and Lisa Loeb. And somehow his efforts to do his own solo music led to another band, Stonehoney. Like I said, you can't write stuff this compelling and ironic! And guys when its time for your screenplay, I'm your guy!

So all this and we haven't even gotten to the show yet! Some of you are wishing you stopped at "WOW", for sure! Anyhow we were warned to arrive early for the evening show, it was a sell-out and seating would be at a premium. But somehow we left ourselves too much time after an early dinner, which led to recreational shopping and we all know no good can come from that, so we arrived later than I hoped. Seats were all taken, so while Becky dropped our pot-luck offering in the kitchen, I found us standing/sitting room on the stairs which acts as a balcony. There were lots of regular, familiar faces there but lots of new ones too, with a bit younger-than-usual audience profile. We were soon joined on the stairs by quite a few people, it really was more crowded than we had ever seen here. But while we did have a bit of discomfort due to crowding, our sight lines were excellent and the sound superb.

Russ did his usual intro talk about other music in the area and introduced the show's cosponsor, Rick Hermelin, a massage therapist in the Agoura area. Rick is a super-regular at Russ and Julie's having been to over 100 of their shows, has cosponsored shows for ten consecutive years and is one of those "friendly faces" we see at intermission at many local shows that I have reviewed in the past. Then, finally, Stonehoney took the stage. In a venue this small, they play without drummer Scotty Lund, who augments the quartet in larger rooms. The evening's instrumental lineup was constant all night, Nick on acoustic guitar (Martin), Shawn on acoustic guitar (Gibson) with Dave holding the rhythm on Fender Precision bass and Phil adding ornamentation on lead guitar, alternating between vintage-looking Fenders, a Telecaster (with a humbucker in the neck position) and a Strat, and a vintage-looking Gibson Les Paul (in the pictures above, from left to right, Nick, Shawn, Dave and Phil with a Strat at top, and with a Tele below). It very shortly became evident that, while all these guys write great songs, their "bandness" ultimately relies tremendously on Dave's rock-solid, yet inventive bass playing and Phil's stunningly amazing lead guitar work. They are key in taking the simplicity of earnest folk/country/rock songs to the fullness of a finished product. Because Becky is studying hand percussion, we were at first disappointed that there was no percussionist this night, though I never felt the lack once the music started.

A quick aside: a band with four lead singers and four songwriters could be a reviewer's nightmare and add in the fact that their CD attributes all songs to only "Stonehoney" and their frequent lack of any song introductions, some confusion is almost inevitable. But the fact that they, on stage referred to songs as being "one of Dave's" or the like, caused me to assume that songs were written by the one who sang lead on it and that lines of lyric repeated often in the song are most likely the title. So take most of the songwriting attributions and song titles with a couple grains of salt. And, as I have often done discretely in the past, I will edit this in the future if I become aware of blatant factual errors.

So, Stonehoney kicked off the night with one of Phil's, "Feels Like Home", a feel-good country rocker that got the crowd going from the get-go. My first thought about the band was "These guys are much younger than I expected". After reading their bios on-line and listening to a bunch of their music, I had assumed these guys were much older, more like my age, than the 30- somethings they appear to be live. I have no real idea of any of their ages, this is just my impression seeing them. They look like they might be just as at home covered in tattoos and piercings and playing in some grunge band. They are quite accomplished guys if I'm at all close on the age thing. The next tune was one of Shawn's and one of the band's best, maybe the best prison ballad I have heard, called "Good As Gone", which features this memorable lyric "at the intersection, I could have turned right, but I turned wrong". Shawn has a voice like a thrift-store leather jacket, new and interesting but at the same time instantly familiar and comfortable. I heard moments when he sounded like the singer from Lynyrd Skynyrd or the guy from The Marshall Tucker Band, but still sounding original. And the harmonies! Most of these songs feature great four-part harmony, often evoking groups like The Eagles, The Byrds and even Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The other immediately striking part of the music was the lead guitar work of Phil Hurley, always extremely tasty in a classic country way but also often sounding a lot like Jerry Garcia in his best countryish stuff with The Dead or like Clarence White of The Byrds.

The set progressed with Dave sounding vocally a lot like a young Jackson Browne on "Still Gonna Sing Your Song" and with Phil and Shawn's first collaboration, the upbeat, uplifting "There Is Light". Nick added a rockabilly flavor with "The One She's Taking Home". Other highlights in that first set included Phil's self-described "buckle bumper" (slow dance) country ballad " I Just Want To Dance With You" where he abandoned his voice's usual country/rock growl for a much sweeter sounding vocal, Dave's great song "Smile Again" sounding quite bluegrass with just a hint of rockabilly and featuring Phil's pyrotechnic country lead licks and Nick's "Little Angel", his songs being the most poppish and mainstream, but still true to the band's core country feel. When the set closed with Dave's rocking tribute to touring life on the road, "Your Turn To Drive", we all needed a break from the high energy excitement and the rising temperatures.

At intermission the first order of business was to buy CDs. The band has only their first CD out and were selling it for only $5 each, which was ridiculously cheap for a really great CD. I was afraid they'd sell out at such a price and fought my way to the CD sales table post-haste and bought one for us and one for our daughter, who is a big fan of country, doesn't often share our taste and has a birthday coming up. I'm pretty sure she never reads me, so I don't think I'm ruining any surprise. As I'm writing this I was listening to the CD and our daughter said, "I'll have to burn a copy of this one" which I discourage as a fan of independent music and have made unnecessary with my purchase, so I guess I did real good in my gift buying. Becky held our spot during intermission, not wanting to fight the throngs. After my purchasing, I brought her a soft drink and some sweets for my sweet from the pot-luck table and then went back and grabbed a bit for myself, went out to the backyard to cool off and mingle and then it was time to go back for the second set.

First up in the second set was Dave with his sweet bluesy "Melinda" that featured Phil's tasty bottleneck playing on his Tele. Shawn was next with his "Simple Life" which sounded like Buck Owens joining Lynyrd Skynyrd if you can get your mind around such a setup. Nick added another sweet melancholy number with "I Don't Want To Go Home" and the then the four took turns on the verses of one of my all time favorites, Dylan's classic "You Ain't Going Nowhere" which developed into a sing-a-long, at least for me it did!

It was right about then the band began the most extensive series of guitar string breaking that I have ever seen in decades of hanging around performers! It became comical as both Nick and Shawn repeatedly had to rush to change strings in mid set if not mid song. Looking back on it now it was one of those opportunities to see performers as real people that make them that much more endearing to the audience and often leads to some magic of improvisation and spontaneity.

Apparently the band knew that a young woman named Sara was there, in the front row with her friends (you can see the back of their heads in the left sied of the pictures above) , celebrating her Sweet Sixteen birthday seeing Stonehoney. So Dave knocked into an off-the-cuff version of the Chuck Berry classic, "Sweet Little Sixteen", a primal rock song every guitar player knows to one extent or another, and Phil had a blast riffing on such a standard in such a informal setting. Dave struggled a bit with the lyrics, which only made the moment more perfect, with the whole audience AND the band sharing a really unique event. Then Nick began the Hall and Oates hit "Sara Smile", crooning it for all it was worth in his best mainstream pop voice, adding his own perfection as he struggled for a chord or two and, of course Phil vamping jazzily on electric guitar in the background. It was as if a whole new band had taken stage or we were transported magically to a back alley bar somewhere. The improvising moments continued as Dave launched into The Temptations' classic "Just My Imagination" with the band doing their best Motown backup singer voices and even a touch of playful "choreography".

Well eventually the guys got back to their own music with Phil offering his "Million Pretty Girls" rocker, a blistering Hank Williams Jr sounding rave-on that could be a theme for Monday Night Football were it not for its subject matter. One other little note about Phil. He was very obviously having the time of his life up there with a huge grin on his face much of the night (see top picture above). I always find guys like this quite infectious and, added to his amazing talent, I think he is going to be a name we hear about for a long time! The band continued to kick the intensity up a notch with Shawn's gritty murder story "Love Will Make You Crazy" a catchy Southern rocker firmly in the Skynyrd/Marshall Tucker tradition.

This band gave the impression that they could play all night and might have if they had not given an afternoon show already. With four writers they have lots of material to draw upon and simple math will tell you that we were probably hearing pretty much all of the best songs by all of these writers and the quality was certainly top-notch. As the set was drawing to a close the highlights for me included a brilliant rendition of The Eagles' beautiful harmony song "Seven Bridges Road", Dave's kind of jazzy sounding "Tear It Down" and Shawn's "I'm The Lucky One". Around then Russ let them know that, while they could play as long as they wanted, it was 10:30, when the concert was scheduled to end.

Of course the guys decided to do a couple more, kicking into Phil's "Two Years Down" a rocking missing you love song with Phil forgoing his bluesy growl again for a bit of sweet country twang and the whole thing sounding like a country radio hit if I ever heard one. And then they pulled out another of my old favorites to sing along with, again trading verses vocally on The Band's classic tune "The Weight". And then, of course the crowd demanded one more as an encore and they launched into the classic Joni Mitchell-as-done-by-Crosby, Stills and Nash "Woodstock", a celebration of the anniversary and more importantly the independent spirit of that time. The band had a blast on it, the audience sang along (this time I was sure it wasn't just me!) and the night came to a memorable conclusion. All that was left was for me to say "WOW!" I told you, you could have stopped there.

Links for Stonehoney:

and Russ and Julie's


  1. Wow, I never knew about house concerts. I am going to have to go to one. I love folk music. Thanks for your review. Very interesting! - Kim

  2. Welcome to the Petered Out and house concert families, Kim! We'll discuss your specific tastes and I'll recommend shows I think you'll like. Lot's of good stuff coming!