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Wednesday, 14 January 2009 14:47

More gems from the used bin

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Robben Ford and the Blue Line: Handful Of Blues

No, it’s not out of print, nor is “Handful Of Blues” all that hard to find. But when one of your favorite CDs finally succumbs to age and years of mishandling, it’s a lovely surprise to find a “new old” copy staring back at you in the used rack. This was just the case recently, when no amount of cleaning or buffing would allow the last three tracks of this stunning modern blues release (from 1995) to play in their entirety.

Ford’s style is a crafty amalgamation of fiery, stinging blues guitar in the Bloomfield vein and a jazzy harmonic sophistication. There are potent smatterings of rock and soul to be found in that mix as well. Somehow, though, Ford is able to never lean to far in any direction — he stays centered in the blues, but is so crafty at sneaking some very forward thinking “un-blues” lines into his phrases that you never get the feeling he’s a jazzbo in disguise. The opening track, “Rugged Road,” prominently displays this trait — it’s an up-tempo burner that features his burnished but biting tone in a series of amazing solos. Vocally, Ford often divides listeners into the “like it/leave it camps,” and admittedly, a gravelly belter he’s not. But the guy’s got a great voice anyway, smooth and controlled.

The other thing (as if there were merely a few) that separates the guitarist from the blues guitar pack is his neck deep sense of groove — the guy’s a machine. Combined with a rhythm section consisting of remarkable players like bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tom Brechtlein, it makes for not only a lesson in stunning modern blues soloing, but also how to make a power trio truly rock. Their cover of the classic “Chevrolet” is old sock funky and deep, deep blue. The instrumental “The Miller’s Son” is a smoking reworking of Clapton’s “Steppin’ Out” framework, and he masterfully reads “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” into a smoky blues/pop tune.

One more thing, and don’t get wrong for saying this, but Robben Ford is one of the few modern blues guitarists that sound NOTHING like the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan. As fine as the Bonamassa’s and Duarte’s out there are, they’re still treading on all too familiar ground. Ford, in the best way, is a different animal altogether.

 

Sugar: Copper Blue

If we were to reset the “wayback machine” to 1992, and went looking for some crunchy, literate — oh, how I hate this term — ‘post punk’ pop, Bob Mould’s Copper Blue would be an excellent find. From the ashes of Husker Du, Mould decided to slow things down and push the melodies to the forefront, but in doing so kept the guitars roaring and the tunes damn smart. And sometimes disturbing — the grave and darkly sarcastic pixies-esque “Good Idea” will have you tapping your foot and staring at the lyric book in sheer horror.

Being a sucker for smartly crafted, hooky tunes and great guitar tones, it was Sugar’s later release, File Under Easy Listening that initially hipped me to Mould’s overall brilliance as a musician and songwriter. Almost hate to say it, but to my ears Copper Blue is an even better album, though the earliest.

Maybe its Mould’s knack for creating these sunny sounding, chiming songs and sticking disarmingly tortured lyrics beneath the layers of harmony that makes this music stand up so well seventeen years later. Though you can hear differences in the mastering qualities, it’s hard to say that much of this sounds dated at all- save for the synthesizer patch in “Hoover Dam” possibly. But songs like “The Act We Act” and “Changes” manage to deal with the intricacies and difficulties of relationships and loss while somehow making you feel as if you’re speeding down the interstate on a warm day with the windows down. And those of you of the correct music consumption age back in ’92 surely recall the band’s one radio and MTV hit, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” Jangly, hummable and sad as can be. Great stuff.

On a completely different note, I recently picked up the book Jazz Country by Nat Hentoff and found it a remarkably enjoyable, if short, reading experience. Originally published in 1965, it chronicles the story of a talented young trumpet player named Tom Curtis and his attempts to enter the world of jazz. The story dates itself, often beats you over the head with its message, but it still manages to be a wonderful and insightful tale written by someone that understood the culture and mindset of jazz musicians. Tom wants to play jazz, but finds himself initially shut out by the players he admires because of racial tensions at the time. As he’s trying to wrap his mind around the whole thing, get his chops to the point they need to be, decide whether to go to college or play in a band, the kid manages to figure out who he really is and meet some amazing people along the way. Yes, predictable. But you should still read it if you like jazz and have a few hours to kill. It’s well worth the effort.

(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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