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CD Review: Robben Ford's "Truth"

Dialing in the Blues

Robben Ford’s latest CD, Truth, mines a richer vein of modern blues and blues-influenced grooves than he has ever tapped before on a solo release. It is still eclectic in nature, drawing on the required diverse range of styles we’ve come to expect from Ford, but every song is a deeper shade of blue. His straight forward blues is bluesier. His Memphis-style arrangements are more soulful, the funky jump pockets are tighter and his R&B is groovier. Many of the complex keyboard voicings have been replaced with searing B-3, the writing is more sophisticated in a less-is-more blues fashion and the arrangements themselves are generally simpler. Oh, and those endlessly creative solos are there, too- sometimes defining melodic efficiency and sometimes calling you out with a swagger that is bold yet refined. This is the Robben Ford CD that will win over anyone who isn’t already a fan.

Ford is known for a distinctive style of play that blends blues, jazz and rock with precision and style. He is often described as an instrumental fusion guru whose legacy is secure, but for many Ford fans with later points of entry into his catalogue he is simply a great, versatile performer. His later work, and this new CD especially, solidify the appeal of his 1-2 punch as a musician: great vocals and tasty guitar work that is characteristically envelope-pushing yet tempered by the restraint that comes with experience.

Truth opens with a buckshot blast of blues shuffle. The lead track, “Lateral Climb,” gets right to the point with hard-edged licks and a lyrical hook drawing on the blues tradition of describing a world in which the deck is stacked against you. As expected, Ford’s solos draw you in and show you a thing or two about what the instrument is capable of. There are tips of the hat to Buddy Guy’s phrasing and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s descending runs to the bottom string but it is Robben’s own creativity that leaves the lasting impression. His licks are both playful and authoritative.

Songs like “How Deep in the Blues (Do You Want to Go?)” and “Moonchild Blues” deliver B.B. King-inspired bends that, when pulled off as they are here, solidify any blues CD. It is interesting to note that “Riley B. King,” an actual tribute to B.B. King, steers clear of any signature licks that conjure musical snapshots of the reigning King of the Blues. Ford lets the lyrical references do the work instead of his solo chops, resulting in perhaps the ultimate show of respect for a guitar legend.

Songs like “You’re Gonna Need a Friend” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” bring some nice variations of funkiness to the recording. “You’re Gonna…” is clearly destined for radio play with a classic R&B groove that delivers a tight pocket, a Jimmy Smith-like B-3, traditional R&B background vocals and a few Steely Dan-like chords. Ford co-wrote the song with his wife, singer Anne Kerry Ford.

“Nobody’s Fault…” is a particularly bright spot on the CD, giving the lesser-known Otis Redding song new life with funky horns, an infectiously syncopated beat and an organ that pumps the way they used to back in Stax’ heyday. Ford’s guitar finds perfect spots to interact and lead.

Ford also does a good job making Paul Simon’s “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor” his own. Susan Tedeschi joins him on vocals and the track is given plenty of room to breathe. Ford’s solos are playful and bluesy, defining the song as much as the signature Simon progression in the intro. For listeners familiar with Ford, this is actually what we expect – unexpected directions pulled within his musical reach with flair.

As a whole, Truth is a solid disc any Ford fan will relish, as well as a refreshing glimpse of what Ford has to offer when dialing in the blues vibe a little tighter than he has on past solo releases (barring maybe 1998’s live CD, The Authorized Bootleg, which featured Ford picking blues on acoustic). With Ford''s inspired guitar playing the CD holds its own as a blues album- this is despite the fact that most of the songs fade out in a very radio friendly manner. The broad range of styles he is known for is an immense pool of experience to draw from and it shows, coloring his arrangements and solos with a palette that is bright and deep. It’s nice to see Ford flush out the music he started his career with; with this CD he again elevates his artistry to another level. Truth is rootsy and soulful-- another high point in a storied career.

For more information:

Robben Ford will be appearing at Premier Guitar Festivals - Boston, September 15th