Robben Ford has had a diverse career. He taught himself guitar when he was thirteen and considered his first influence to be Mike Bloomfield. At 18, he moved to San Francisco to form the Charles Ford Band (named after his father, who was also a guitarist) and was soon hired to play with Charlie Musselwhite for nine months. In 1971, the Charles Ford Blues Band was re-formed and recorded for Arhoolie in early 1972. Ford played with Jimmy Witherspoon (1972-1973), the L.A. Express with Tom Scott (1974), George Harrison, and Joni Mitchell. In 1977, he was a founding member of the Yellowjackets, which he stayed with until 1983, simultaneously having a solo career and working as a session guitarist. In 1986, Ford toured with Miles Davis and he had two separate periods (1985 and 1987) with Sadao Watanabe, but he seemed to really find himself in 1992 when he returned to his roots - the blues. Ford formed a new group, the Blue Line, and has since recorded a couple of blues-rock dates for Stretch that are among the finest of his career.
Today, possessing a resume that includes stints with an impressively broad range of other musical personalities - Miles Davis, George Harrison, Little Feat, and the Yellowjackets, among many others - Ford has demonstrated an uncanny adaptability similar to that of the MGs and the Muscle Shoals group. The guitarist has effortlessly traversed genres without compromising his exquisite, blues-based playing and singing.
Ford says, “This is the music I grew up with, when things were more carefree. For me, the music is full of nostalgia. I think we could all use some of that kind of feeling today.”
Robben Ford’s last studio effort, 2007’s Truth, received a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album. Where that recording focused on his workmanlike songwriting skills and his prodigious guitar technique, Bringing It All Back Home (2013) highlights other aspects of his musical persona. This is Ford putting on offer his considerable skills as a bandleader and song interpreter. There’s not a lot of super-picker athleticism on display here, and there doesn’t need to be.
Backed a smoking band that includes organist Larry Goldings, drummer Harvey Mason, bassist David Pilch, and trombonist Stephen Baxter, Ford makes it look easy. On this series of mainly cover tunes, his modern blues is infused with his love of New Orleans’ R&B throughout. This is especially true on the slippery, punchy, readings of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and “Fair Child” - two of the first three tunes here - that are simultaneously polished and greasy. One of the three guitar burners here is “Trick Bag,” by NOLA guitar hero Earl King. It showcases the locked-in interplay between Pilch and Baxter as they ride atop Mason’s funky butt breakbeats. Even Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” gets a second-line backbeat treatment.
Another guitar highlight, albeit a gorgeously relaxed one, is an instrumental update of the traditional “On That Morning,” wherein Ford expertly channels his inner Wes Montgomery. On “Slick Capers Blues,” by little known pre-war bluesman Charlie “Little Buddy” Doyle, he and Goldings trade knotty lines in updating the tune for the new century. A great surprise here is how fine a singer Ford has become. His voice is as much an instrument on this set as his guitar is. Whether it’s on the aforementioned cuts, his version of wife Ann Kerry Ford’s and Michael McDonald’s jazzy “Traveler’s Waltz,” or his Mose Allison-by-way-of-Ben Sidran reading of “Fool’s Paradise,” his vocals are expressive and relaxed; he displays sophisticated, savvy, seemingly effortless phrasing. The grain of his voice on the lone original, “Oh, Virginia,” establishes a seamless connection between Southern soul, New Orleans rhythm & blues, and country music - and may be the finest song he’s written.
There is a precedent for Bringing It All Back Home: Lowell George’s classic, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here. That album was misunderstood upon release because it downplayed the artist’s slide guitar and songwriting chops to focus on his consummate skill as a singer. Ford has done something similar, yet offers his fans enough of his instrumental talent to balance the equation.