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Wednesday, 29 August 2007 00:00

Truth is, Sloe Gin fizzed

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By Chris Cooper

Robben Ford: Truth

Not many guitarists can meld the harmonic sensibilities of jazz with the visceral punch of blues and make it work. Often, the “blues” part of it gets watered down in order to better accommodate the instrumentalist’s need to demonstrate their “jazz” leanings, and we know that never works very well.

Then you have the hordes of “real” blues pickers that basically rehash the licks of Stevie Ray Vaughan without ever looking beyond his body of work to investigate the musicians that influenced the way he did things — akin to being blind to the branch that holds the leaves, let alone the whole damn tree.

This has never, ever been a problem for Robben Ford. An incredibly knowledgeable player (having spent time in the employ of Miles Davis, Jimmy Witherspoon and Joni Mitchell may have a bit to do with that) Ford has never tried to sound like anyone but himself. He has long displayed a knack for sneaking his hefty jazz vocabulary into some of the best modern blues music being made. With Truth, Ford’s stylistic intent has crystallized into something completely his own — albeit with a fatter tone and more streamlined, crossover friendly songwriting than ever before.

But before you start mumbling about how those traits were the beginning of Clapton’s descent into pseudo-blues-pop drivel, load up Truth, skip to the second track, “How Deep In The Blues (Do You Want To Go?)” and listen to the dirty, neck deep groove Ford and band create. Who’s making music like this nowadays? Hear how he weaves serpentine lines over Bernie Worrell’s dense Wurlitzer stabs during the outro? Nope — this is Ford’s thing, and his alone.

The guitarist throws a few covers into the mix as well, reinterpreting Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” into a slippery soul/funk excursion with tightly arranged horns and Paul Simon’s “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” featuring Susan Tedeschi’s smoky vocals. His homage to BB King (“Riley B. King”) serves as the only potential misstep here, sweetly intended but just a little too earnest lyrically. “There’ll Never Be Another You” redeems things nicely, with Ford laying smart, fierce guitar lines all over a tale of how elusive contentment can be in a relationship, even if on the outside things seem perfectly fine.

Though long known in guitar circles, Robben Ford easily deserves (and may well gain) recognition outside of the six-string club on the merit of Truth. Strong tunes, fantastic playing and excellent production...what’s not to like?

 

Joe Bonamassa: Sloe Gin

OK, if an artist has the guts to open their album with a Chris Whitley cover, I take it as a very good sign. Joe Bonamassa does just that on Sloe Gin, melding blues-rock bombast and acoustic textures, with a smattering of southern grit tossed in for seasoning.

In the second song, “One Of These Days,” Bonamassa belts it out like Warren Haynes, then launches into a soaring slide solo over a vaguely “Layla” styled accompaniment, following with a Bad Company cover, “Seagull.” You may be noticing quite a few “ism’s” and references to other artists in these descriptions, which can be either good or bad, depending on your angle. Bonamassa can play and sing, no doubt, but he often succumbs to “spot the influence” syndrome — around the middle of the title track I couldn’t help but think of Meatloaf. Granted, the song was written by the guys responsible for much of the music from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but still; this is NOT a good sign.

Whereas Robben Ford’s latest album plays up the more sophisticated side of jazzy blues, Bonamassa takes the less subtle route on Sloe Gin. Tunes like “Around The Bend” and “Dirt In My Pocket” are enjoyable enough, but like much of the CD there’s a sense of familiarity to these songs that makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly who Bonamassa is as an artist. “Black Night” is a great tune, and he plays it wonderfully, but it still sounds like Gary Moore sitting in with Deep Purple. Disagree if you like. When the ballads (there’s a few) begin to resemble those of the dreaded “power” variety (and they do) no amount of incendiary picking or raspy, soulfully delivered vocals can save them.

Don’t get me wrong — Sloe Gin is a good, solid album. Bonamassa has depth as a player and singer, he’s versatile, and damn he can burn it up when he wants to. It’s just that little “identity” issue that gets in the way a bit too often, to the point of distracting you from the good stuff you should otherwise be enjoying. Diehard fans will no doubt enjoy Sloe Gin from start to finish, but I found myself waiting for the real Joe to stand up and say hello. Maybe next time.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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