by Ian Mann
November 15, 2006
Ford is certainly a master of his craft. You don't get to play with Miles Davis if you haven't got the chops.
I first saw Robben Ford play live at the 2001 San Francisco Blues Festival. It was a couple of weeks after the September 11th attacks and the city was very quiet. We’d booked the holiday back in February and we certainly weren’t going to let a bunch of terrorists spoil our plans.
We seemed to be the only tourists around which was great for us. There were no queues for the attractions and the locals kept buying us drinks and telling us how brave we were to have made the trip at all in the light of what had happened. The truth was far more prosaic- we’d already paid for this trip and we were damn well going to get our money’s worth! It was good old British pragmatism and bloody mindedness rather than bravery.
Our trip happened to coincide with the Blues Festival but by accident rather than design. Nevertheless on our first day in the city we found ourselves in the Great Meadow at Fort Mason for a day of the Blues. The weather was glorious and a large crowd turned out and had a great time. It was as if after nearly a fortnight of mourning America was ready to let its hair down again and have a party. There was a great atmosphere to the whole event.
The programme stretched the definition of “Blues” and included Los Lobos, Maria Muldaur, Little Milton and jazz Hammond organ legend Jimmy Smith. But for me the best band of the day was The Ford Blues Band with their Paul Butterfield tribute. Robben Ford was featured on guitar alongside his brothers Patrick on drums and Mark on harmonica and vocals. I bought a couple of albums featuring this line up and was not disappointed. The chance of seeing Robben play in England was one not to be missed even if downtown Bilston may not quite have the same air of glamour as downtown San Francisco.
Having said that Bilston’s Robin 2 Club is an ideal venue for Ford’s music. With a genuine club atmosphere it is small enough to be intimate but large enough to prevent overcrowding becoming a problem. Blessed with good acoustics all it needs is some real ale behind the bar to complete the perfect package. In the meantime there’s always The Olde White Rose just across the road for a quality pre gig pint.
Ford is based in California and has had a prolific recording career dating back to the 1970’s. Originally inspired by harpist Paul Butterfield and guitarist Mike Bloomfield Ford subsequently played with blues greats Charlie Musselwhite and Jimmy Witherspoon .He later dipped his toes in the jazz pool and played with fusion band The Yellowjackets. This led to a brief spell with the legendary Miles Davis and he also got to record with Joni Mitchell appearing on “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns”. In addition to appearing in this distinguished company Ford continued to play and record with his brothers and their associates and also to lead his own bands recording several albums under his own name. In total as leader or sideman he has appeared on some fifty albums.
Despite his flirtation with jazz Ford has always kept the blues at the heart of his playing. However, there are still elements of jazz in his music and this was reflected in his choice of band mates. On drums was the powerful and versatile Gary Novak. I’ve seen Novak in a jazz setting with the late Bob Berg, a fine saxophonist and himself a former Miles Davis alumnus. This was at Ronnie Scott’s Club when there was a branch in Birmingham. It’s a great shame that a city of that size couldn’t sustain a full time jazz policy at the club and it is now sadly closed. Tragically Berg was killed in a road accident in 2002.
I saw Novak again with vibes man Joe Locke at the 2004 Cheltenham Jazz Festival - one of the highlights of the weekend. But Novak is just as at home in blues and rock contexts. He’s filled in for heavy metal bands and sounds just great playing the blues with Ford tonight. In short he’s got it all.
Bassist Melvin Davies is a new name to me but also proved to be a fine player. Seated throughout he mainly played on a five string electric bass and added an element of Jaco Pastorius inspired funkiness to the normal blues bass lines. At one point he demonstrated his virtuosity on a remarkable seven stringed bass conjuring up some incredible high register effects and producing a guitar like sound himself complete with full chords. Besides laying down some great grooves over the course of the evening he proved to be a melodic, imaginative and technically brilliant soloist.
With a rhythm section of this quality Ford was able to introduce a greater degree of improvisation into the music than is normal in a blues context and to move away from the standard heads down twelve-bar format. There was a real chemistry and some great interaction between the players who were quite clearly thoroughly enjoying themselves. This band was hot and more than happy to demonstrate their instrumental prowess.
To this end they cantered through a couple of instrumentals, again something of a departure from the staple blues format. “Indianola” from Ford’s 2002 “Blue Moon” album was written for B.B. King and features a great melodic hook plus some razor sharp riffing. It’s a good introduction to Ford’s clean, crisp guitar style. Over the course of the evening Ford covered every inch of the fretboard in a master class of blues guitar playing but his sound was always pure and sharp and he used his effects pedals sparingly. It’s the sound of a man with complete confidence in his own abilities.
The other instrumental “Cannonball Shuffle” was a dedication to Freddie King and included a dazzling bass solo from Davies. First a tribute to B.B. and then one to Freddie - we just needed one for Albert to complete a holy trinity of blues royalty.
Ford would probably be the first to admit that he is a better guitarist than he is a singer. He may not have a classic blues voice but his high pitched somewhat reedy vocals are well suited to his choice of material and have a hint of white soul about them. Appropriately enough his voice sounded great on “Nothing To Nobody”, co-written with the ultimate white soul boy Michael McDonald once of The Doobie Brothers. In truth Ford is a pretty decent singer it’s just that his guitar playing is so exceptional. This track also featured the first of a couple of stunning drum solos from Novak, both a polyrhythmic blend of jazz chops and rock power
The set also included “Don’t Deny Your Love” (also from “Blue Moon”) and the title track from Ford’s new album “Keep on Running”. Yes - this was the old Spencer Davis Group classic from the sixties - so it was quite appropriate that it should be given an airing in the West Midlands.
A personal highlight for me was the inclusion of Paul Butterfield’s tune “Lovin’ Cup” which brought back happy memories of that day in San Francisco five years ago.
Ford’s records are sometimes somewhat over produced. “Blue Moon” includes Willie Dixon’s “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” and I found the trio’s stark version of it tonight far more effective than the album track.
An incendiary “Blind Leading The Blind” closed a good value for money show before the band returned to encore with the title track of Ford’s 1999 album “Supernatural”.
A large, enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd lapped it up. Ford obviously has quite a following here in the UK. It was pleasing to see so many young faces in the audience and I would guess that there were a considerable number of aspiring guitar players present hoping to learn something from the master.
Ford is certainly a master of his craft. You don’t get to play with Miles Davis if you haven’t got the chops. He contributed a number of excellent solos but always kept a good balance between rhythm and lead and this was as fine an example of blues guitar playing as I’ve ever seen. He’s something of a showman too but not in the Buddy Guy mould. The preposterously youthful looking Ford has a more low key approach but is surely Guy’s equal in terms of ability. With top class players like Novak and Davies in the line up this was a hell of a band and they delivered some terrific music.
Earlier the three-piece Samuel C. Lees Band delivered solid and competent support in the blues rock style. Mainly self-written it included their new single “Little Girl Lost” plus a take on Buddy Guy’s “Stone Crazy”. Lees was no mean guitarist himself and the band seemed to have learnt something from the Ford group as the bassist added a few funk elements to his own playing. Inevitably though they sounded a little pedestrian compared with what was to come.
Ford is due to play at the following venues before the end of the tour;
15/11/06 Sheffield Boardwalk Tel; 0870 145 1207
16/11/06 Exeter Phoenix Tel; 01392 667080
17/11/06 Frome Cheese & Grain Tel; 01373 455420
18/11/06 London Mean Fiddler Tel; 0207 434 9592
Details of future events at The Robin 2 Club, Bilston can be found at http://www.therobin.co.uk or telephone 01902 401211