The Steel Woods– All Of Your Stones
Thirty Tigers/The Orchard
As theory has it, music critics focus on reviewing the music they love – or that does something special for them – enlisting a committment to help spread the news. Not always, however. The first time I heard The Steel Woods their groundbreaking 2017 debut, Straw In The Wind, I was instantly blown away. It became my album-of-the-summer (and still is). Here was a divine amalgam of so many of my favorite sounds: real Southern rock based in the blues with generous helpings of country and bluegrass built-in. Some hear a metal influence, likely explained away by the highly muscular guitar assault from band-founders, Wes Bayliss and Jason Cope, which adorns most of their work. Their other secret weapon, aside from the ferocity of their combined guitar snarl, is the vocal prowess of Wes Bayliss. Both Cope and Bayliss write and play a variety of stringed instruments, adding the hard-hitting tag-team of Johnny Stanton on bass and Isaac Senty on drums. The result is a tight, true ‘band’ sound with a sure-fire chemistry impacting everything they do. Nobody’s been mining this particular turf so exquisitely since Skynyrd themselves, The Steel Woods filling that void nicely. Hell, they even cover Ronnie Van Zandt’s “I Need You” by transforming it into a proper duet with fellow Southern rebel, Ashley Monroe, adding the requisite grit and gristle.
The Steel Woods followed their debut with ‘19’s Old News – underlining their country roots with covers of Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt, offset nicely by references including songs by Tom Petty, The Allmans and Black Sabbath (if you can believe such a thing is possible…and it is). While not as dynamic a presence as their debut, Old News demonstrated a true band progression and a great set-up to this latest release. Written and recorded prior to the untimely passing of wunderkind, Jason “Rowdy” Cope (from complications of diabetes), the release is shrouded in the unthinkable, causing the listener to read more into each song’s lyric than is actually there. Although Cope had taken some time off to get his health back on track, his entirely unexpected passing has dealt a serious blow to the band’s trajectory as they scramble to keep things focused and together, rather than succumb to what is – otherwise – a crippling loss. The timing of the return of live music to the listening public, coupled with the impact of this dynamic release, may be everything the band needs to continue their momentum and grow their following.
Despite the bizarre misfire of the 1:17 “Intro” which, although it likely holds some meaning for the band, does little for listener beyond providing an irksome distraction, it is instantly redeemed by “Out of the Blue.” This hard and heavy Cope original reveals the band’s true colors – vocally and musically, although its somewhat repetitive lyric and dirge-like pace offsets its true potential.
Cue “You’re Cold,” with its lively fretwork, gut-wrenchingly soulful vocal and the impact of a hard-hitting rhythm section. Despite its jaunty bass-and-guitar duel which eventually gives way to a wall of strings, it’s not a tune that you’ll be singing along with anytime soon. Cue “You Never Came Home” – tugging at heartstrings with its gentle piano intro, it underlines the quality of the singer’s voice, building as it does to demonstrate Bayliss’ incredible range.
Likewise, the tender “Ole Pal” reveals the band’s musical ability to generate true emotion, aided by their choice of acoustic guitar, dobro and fiddle and Bayliss’ ability to create memorable characters through his writing – driven home by the despair of losing a friend, echoed in his voice. The fact that this was recorded long before Cope’s untimely passing, only adds to the uncanny sense of loss this band must feel now. Speaking of Skynyrd,
The Steel Woods seem more at home in the southern rock camp versus their country leanings. Covering the Ed King/Gary Rossington classic from ‘74’s Second Helping, “I Need You” benefits from a duet with fellow Southern rebel, Ashley Monroe, as the pair slow things down to amplify the heartache. The contrast between Bayliss’ comparatively rough, howl of a voice and Monroe’s tough-yet-feminine contribution works wonders here, while the guitars deliver that much-needed punch to reorder the original in true ‘tribute’ fashion. “Run on Ahead” softens the scene – again with the delicate fervor of acoustic guitars – while Bayliss hands off yet another sincere and soulful vocal performance, supported by Taylor Bayliss. The complementary addition of mandolin and steel guitar helps to embellish each lyric which – one more time – feels like it was written for their fallen friend and band member (but actually penned by William Ross Newell). Tears aren’t far behind this one. From ‘running ahead’ to the more leisurely request of “Baby Slow Down” – the pleading of a young mother for the safety of her child in a fast-paced world. And that’s pandemic aside.
Updating Cupid’s arrow with the sound of a gun being cocked and discharged, “Aiming For You” is a slow, swampy blues track that seems more about striving for something better than it does the frustrations of unrequited love. “All of your Stones” is almost biblical as the protagonist turns the darkness into light; transforms the slings and arrows of others into positive reinforcement to stay on course and rise above all naysayers. This is, in fact, exactly what The Steel Woods has done in a short time and that these words come from Jason Cope’s own pen make this song all the more impactful, if not downright painful.
Yet, rather than turn this exceptional release – the ultimate hat-trick – into a memorial for Jason Cope and the end of a spectacular run, think of All Of Your Stones as the complete fulfillment of a dream for band founders, Cope and Bayliss. Like the theme of the title track, the band has taken a negative and transformed it into a positive. Likewise, the relationship of Cope and Bayliss – and the musical bond they’ve created together – a delicate merging of Bayliss’ ‘country and gospel’ musical upbringing to Cope’s influence, which began with Led Zeppelin, somewhat softening in the bargain. The two met back in 2015 and were immediately inspired by each other – and their accomplishments are a tale worth remembering. However, the way forward for The Steel Woods is critical to honoring the memory of their fallen friend – a challenge carrying the ultimate responsibility of continuing to ‘build that house’ and make “Rowdy” proud.