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International Guitar Festival, Birkenhead
10 November 2006
It wasn't until the first encore ('Freedom' from 'Tiger Walk') that I realised what was lacking from this rare Robben Ford UK set. Surprisingly, there was an absence of memorable melodies. Robben Ford plucked out tunes from his back catalogue but they were too formulaic and - to the non-convert - none too distinctive.
There was the R&B song where Ford comes across like a female Bonnie Raitt, the blues tribute (for example, 'Cannonball Shuffle') and the jazz funk workouts, but even the latter failed to really catch alight in spite of excellent support from session heavyweights, bassist-and-a-half Melvyn Lee Davies and drummer Gary Novak.
A cover of 'Keep On Running' added nothing to the original and was, frankly, forgettable.
Whilst the trio format was adequate, perhaps Ford needs the foil of a keyboard player: it would certainly have added some variety and texture to this performance and provided a wider canvas for Ford to stretch his solos.
A quick trip to Ford's website before the gig was ominous: pages that seem to date from the dawn of the Internet (1996) and the latest album 'Keep On Running' released three years ago doesn't exactly fill you with confidence. And - always a sign of healthy activity - no merchandise stall at the gig either.
It does suggest a musician caught in a timewarp. (q.v. Robin Trower). In truth, Ford has for the most part ploughed a somewhat idiosyncratic furrow, seemingly shielded from the changing musical environs. Whilst his fans will know his 'classics', to the average listener he remains an acquired taste with no apparent 'hit' or signature tune.
Ford himself seems an amiable character, if somewhat reluctant guitar hero, and was evidently enjoying himself, but his stage formula didn't extend to any extended inter-song banter which may have thrown light on his career and provided some amusing anecdotes. After all, here's a guy who played on Joni Mitchell's 'Hissing Of Summer Lawns', played with Miles Davis, and who also backed George Harrison on tour.
And it's a career that stretches back to the early seventies when he was 'discovered' by Tom Scott as a guitar wunderkind, and a stint with the famed 'Yellowjackets'.
In the context of a Guitar Festival, 40 somethings and Clapton wannabes could salivate over Ford's distinctive and rhythmic style, lots of clipped notes and more frenetic, if not always fluid, flourishes. In this festival context, attracting such time-weathered musos, it almost demands some performer/audience interaction. With UK appearances as rare as hen's molars, Ford's career should be celebrated and savoured. But the artist has to help us.
Perhaps I was somewhat shell-shocked after attending a guitar clinic earlier in the week featuring legendary shredmeister Michael Angelo Batio. But, playing to backing tracks in the corner of a pub, Batio proved to be the more engaging personality and - at least on tonight's evidence - the more passionate about his craft.
Review by David Randall
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