Monday, June 15, 2009

Guitarist Robben Ford: A musician's musician

For a performer Musician magazine named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of the last century, Robben Ford isn't as famous as he has every right to be.

For whatever reason, he's one of those unsung musicians' musicians overshadowed by the likes of John Mayer and Eric Clapton, the top-hatted Slash and the other celebrity guitar slingers.

Along with Larry Carlton, though, Ford is the most talented and yet underrated jazz-rock fusion players in the business. A four-time Grammy nominee, he's played with some of music's heaviest hitters - Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, for starters, plus George Harrison, blues giant Jimmy Witherspoon, Michael McDonald, and Marin's own Bonnie Raitt and Phil Lesh.

Audio: Robben Ford - Supernatural

I have a memory of him that has stuck in my mind for years. I was backstage at the San Francisco Blues Festival when I heard a guitarist playing the hell out of a slow blues tune. I didn't know who it was at first because I was unable to see the bandstand from where I was sitting.

Across from me, an older blues cat who obviously knew his stuff was as rapt as I was, swept away by what we later learned was a transporting Ford guitar solo. When the final tasteful note died out, we made eye contact, smiled and nodded in appreciation. We didn't have to say a word. We knew we'd just been taken to a place only a handful of musicians could have taken us.

Ford last played here in February on a bill with Jorma Kaukonen and Ruthie Foster in the 2,000-seat Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

On June 13, he returns for a mostly acoustic show in the intimate 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. His wife, singer Anne Kerry Ford, opens.

"It's the perfect place for us to do something kind of unique," he said, speaking from his home in Ojai, a Southern California haven for musicians, artists and health enthusiasts.

The 57-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist said the Mill Valley show will be "a little more jazz oriented and song oriented" than his straight-up blues or rock concerts with his power trio.

He'll be singing what he calls his "more subtle songs," namely "Don't Lose Your Faith in Me" and "If" from his 1999 album "Supernatural." It's all part of his campaign to mix music up, to keep it creative and eclectic.

Raised in Ukiah, Ford came of age during the era of the San Francisco Sound, admiring Marin blues guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop from the Paul Butterfield Band.

"When I grew up, I used to see the most incredible combinations of bands at the Fillmore and Winterland in the '60s," he recalled. "You'd see a jazz act, then Ten Years After and then Iron Butterfly. No one minded that there was this diversity."

Ford is working on presenting a series of diverse shows like the ones Bill Graham used to put together in those freewheeling ballroom days.

"There are a lot of great artists who don't get heard because they're pigeonholed, and that's just nonsense," he said. "I'm irked by that. There are people in the music industry saying you can't do this or you can't do that. But I like doing a variety of things."

That's for sure. I asked him about some of the legends he's played with in his wide-ranging career.

Miles Davis: "That was a crowning moment. I played with Miles when I was 34 or 35, then I left the band. I could have stayed with him for God knows how long because he really liked me. He loved my playing and we got along well.

"But the situation around him was an unhealthy scene. I don't mean drugs, but it was a shame to feel the need to leave. It was incredible to make a connection with probably the most important figure in music, at least to me. I still listen to him more than any single artist. At first when I left, he was angry with me. But the last thing he said was, 'If you want to come back, come back.'"

Joni Mitchell: "She was at the peak of her powers when I played with her in the L.A. Express. The 'Court and Spark' record is insanely great, and 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns' leans more to the dark side. They're yin and yang records. And I got to be there for them, to tour with her and make a live record. It was a privilege to work with the greatest artist of the 20th century in pop music. But I split. I wanted to make my own records. I was young and stupid to think like that. But I did two tours with her and two records, and then everybody kind of moved on."

George Harrison: "It was a great experience to play with one of the Beatles. Who would have thought? I met him in London after a Joni Mitchell concert and he invited me to go on his 'Dark Horse' tour.

"But it was a strange situation. We were doing two shows a day sometimes and they were 31Ú2 hours long. We had a huge cast of characters with Ravi Shankar and a 16-piece Indian orchestra. We'd be in these enormous sports arenas for 16 hours a day. It was relentless. There were a lot of drugs around, so it wasn't the most pleasurable experience, but George was generous and sweet to me. It was the only tour he ever did with his band, but he didn't like being a bandleader. I saw him years later and he said, 'I think of you, Robin.' Wow, George Harrison thinking of me? That was the last time I saw him."

Shortly after the tour with Harrison, Ford took a much-needed break from the grind of the road and spent a year in Colorado, studying under the controversial Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, known for the "crazy wisdom" he imparted on his Western followers.

While Ford has never lived in Marin, he should feel right at home in a county with the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.

"He (Trungpa) taught us to look at our own mind and not look at outside forces for our own personal happiness and well being," he explained. "All of us were trying to turn spirituality into a drug or a lover. But he was relentless in cutting through that kind of a view and getting people to be honest with themselves. It had a powerful impact on everyone in those days. And it still does."

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