Keeping rhythm with the blues

May 30, 2004|By KATE COLEMAN

The Western Maryland Blues Fest needed somebody to "kick it up" at the close of Saturday's street festival, Todd Bolton said.

Bolton, who serves on the festival's program committee with Carl Disque and David Fitzwater, said Robben Ford fit the bill.

"Robben Ford was a rare unanimous pick," Bolton said.

Ford and his band are likely to bring kick and variety to the ninth annual Western Maryland Blues Fest's Saturday Street Festival in downtown Hagerstown.

"I have all these influences," he said. "I don't want to lose them."

Ford's career is evidence of a wide variety of influences.

He began with the saxophone after first hearing the instrument as a young boy.

"That was sort of an epiphany," he said. "Somehow, that really lit me up to the sax."

His mother got him an instrument when he was 10, and he learned to play in school.

Ford started fooling around with the guitar when he was 13. Although Ford said his father didn't really inspire him to learn the instrument, the elder Ford had been a performer as a young man, and there was a guitar in the home. Ford's dad still played sometimes - Hank Williams tunes, music of the 1930s and '40s.


Robben Ford soon was lead vocalist in a band called The Plus Four - four guys who really didn't know how to play, he said.

He learned.

Ford, 52, grew up listening to and loving the music of Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and soaking up the guitar blues of Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton and B.B. King.

When he was just 18, Ford and his drummer brother Patrick Ford played with blues-harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, who, if not for the rainstorms, would have played at last year's Western Maryland Blues Fest.

Ford joined Jimmy Witherspoon's blues band in his early 20s, and, as a guitarist in 1974, Ford was "discovered" by saxophonist Tom Scott. The progressive fusion group, dubbed L.A. Express, teamed up with Joni Mitchell on her "Court and Spark" tour and played on her 1974 and 1975 albums "Miles of Aisles" and "The Hissing of Summer Lawns."

Ford's rsum includes stints with Miles Davis, George Harrison, Little Feat, David Sanborn and the Yellowjackets.

Yes, variety.

Ford described his music as a hybrid of blues and rhythm and blues. There's a lot more color and texture than straight up blues, he said. There are many different moods.

Ford also writes music. It happens in different ways, Ford said. Sometimes a song starts with a title or some lyrics. Other times it's a guitar groove, a riff, a series of chords, a melody.

"It's basically a practice," he said.

Ford takes a blank sheet of paper and starts writing down chords, changes, lyrics.

He asks himself what the song title is, what the song is about.

Lyrics are the harder part of the process for Ford.

"I could write music all day," he said.

Two songs on his latest CD, "Keep On Running," are collaborative compositions. Ford co-wrote "Hand in Hand with The Blues" with Jill Freeman, who also serves as his sound person and road manager. He shares writing credits on "Bonnie" with Bonnie Hayes, who penned Bonnie Raitt's hits "Have a Heart" and "Love Letters."

Ford chooses his playing companions with versatility in mind. Everybody in his band has played a lot of different kinds of music, he said.

His ensemble includes drummer Hilary Jones and bass player Dewayne Pate. Longtime friend Bob Malach of New York has toured with Ford a few times and will be with him in Hagerstown on the tenor sax.

Malach also played on "Keep On Running," and Ford himself played more than one role. The album was completed, but Ford wasn't satisfied. He went back and redid most of the keyboard parts.

"For me, it's about getting the best possible version of a song," Ford said.

He's found that keyboard players don't really understand the meaning in the true sense of rhythm and blues.

"Most pianists play over the top of the music," he said.

Ford said he plays "rhythm piano" - feeding the rhythm down in the middle of the music.

He described the playing of many keyboard players as "icing."

"I want the cake."

Blues Fest audience members will get a taste of Ford's musical treats.

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