Jerry Smith is lead guitarist with Stone Stephen, which headlines a four-band show Oct. 13, 2012, at the State Theatre in downtown Albany.
LEESBURG, Ga. — The band members’ memories are a little fuzzy now, some 20 years into their time together. But no matter the actual date, they remember well the day they all decided to get back together about five years or so ago.
They should. It was a magical time.
“We hadn’t played together in five or six years, but as soon as we plugged in it was BOOM!” Boomer Benton, the singer who put Stone Stephen together “sometime around ‘91 or ‘92,” said before a recent rehearsal at guitarist Jerry Smith’s converted tool shed in rural Lee County. “No one expected that. It was automatic.”
During what has to be considered a general lull in rock music, Stone Stephen’s members have remained true believers. They still play the Pearl Jam-, Stone Temple Pilots-, Alice in Chains-, Social Distortion-, Tool-inspired music that led them to get together in the first place. And they play it well.
At last week’s gathering, a rehearsal for a “Rocktoberfest” show Saturday at downtown Albany’s State Theatre, they ran through originals “Drift” and “Testified” and followed it up with rousing covers of Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” and Social D’s “Makin’ Believe.”
Drummer Dennis Barrentine locked seamlessly into grooves with bassist Sean Carver, while Smith cranked out sparkling leads and solos on his silver guitar. Benton’s vocal yowl was in top form.
“There’s something about this band,” Barrentine tries to sum up. “It’s like an old girlfriend where the (physical) is good, but the relationship is toxic. We fight like cats and dogs, but there’s a brotherhood that’s hard to explain.”
Stone Stephen, named for the apostle of Christ who was eventually stoned to death for his beliefs, ran through a revolving cast of characters in its infancy before settling on the lineup that has endured. Smith and Carver signed on not long after the band formed, some time in ‘93, and Barrentine became the band’s drummer in ‘97.
They built a large regional following by playing at clubs and bars all over the deep South and earned what they hoped would be the start of something big when they won a regional Battle of the Bands competition that offered studio time at the Wildwood Recording Studio in Dothan, Ala., as its top prize.
That, Smith recalls, was something of an adventure that did not end well.
“We went to the local battle of the bands at the (Veterans Park) amphitheater, but we were extremely hung over,” the guitarist said. “Everyone thought everyone else had loaded up our equipment, but we’d left it at Dave’s Sports Bar the night before. We asked the band that played before us if we could borrow their equipment, and they let us.
“We won the competition.”
As local winners, the band advanced to the finals of the competition in Eufala, Ala. When they got to the backstage area, a surprise awaited them.
“There was a keg of beer sitting in a trash can full of ice,” Smith said. “The (backstage manager) said it had been on ice all day and it was all ours. In no time, we floated that keg. When we got to the stage to play, they told us we could only play three songs.
“We were pretty blitzed and told them we’d play what we wanted to play. We were really raising hell, being jerks, but finally we played. And we won.”
The studio time, however, did not go well. Told they had eight hours worth of free time, the band intended to lay down enough tracks for an album. The engineer told them, though, they might get through the drum tracks in eight hours. That’s when they called on an old friend.
“We’d met (Georgia Music Hall of Fame songwriter) Buddy Buie, and he invited a friend of his from Sony Records to come see us,” Smith said. “The guy liked us and signed us on the spot. He told us we were in line for a million-dollar contract.
“We went back to the studio to work with the engineer, but we just kept colliding over everything. I walked out, and Sony ended up pulling the contract. We never saw a dime of that promise.”
The band played on, though, letting its passion for the music carry it along.
“It’s like what we do now,” Carver said. “We realized we had this connection when we all got back together; it was like we could still read each other’s minds. So we just play for the music. It’s not about making a bunch of money or going out looking for fame. The reward is in playing the music we enjoy.”
Stone Stephen’s members got together with a few like-minded musical friends and put together the Rocktoberfest show at the State, knowing all too well it would coincide with this weekend’s Georgia Throwdown at the Exchange Club Fairgrounds.
But the band members say there’s no ill will in their decision.
“We wish them nothing but success at the Throwdown,” Carver said. “We’re just giving fans of rock music an inexpensive alternative. Tickets are only $10, and there will be nothing but rock music at this show.”
Joining Stone Stephen for Rocktoberfest, which starts at 7 p.m. and runs at least until midnight, will be Torq, Dog Head and Intoxicated Logic.
And with their OMG’s (let’s just call Kristy Smith, Michele Lawson, Angel Watson and Sandrine Carver “veteran” groupies) cheering them on, the true rock and roll believers in Stone Stephen will be looking for a little more of that musical magic when they plug in at the State.
“We’re not looking to be rock stars; we’ve been there and done that,” Benton said. “We’re out to have a good time playing the music we love. We welcome rock music fans to come join us.”