Robben Ford

The Space Between the Notes
Robben Ford
Photo: George B Wells.
Photo: George B Wells.

When it comes to blues, Robben Ford has always been inspired by the most profound practitioners of the form and gone his own way with the understanding that true blues is about honesty and individuality. His latest, Bringing It Back Home, joins his indelible style and touch with the compositional talents of Allen Toussaint, Earl King, and Big Joe Williams.

What was running through your mind as you recorded Bringing It Back Home?
Essentially, I wanted to do something that felt very organic, natural, and uncontrived. In particular, I wanted to make a record where I played in the particular style. A friend said, “T-Bone Walker.” I thought, “Yeah. That’s kind of the school.” I never really listened to T-Bone Walker, but the people I listened to who have influenced me in this way are B.B. King, certainly, and Lonnie Johnson, whose style is simple and straightforward. B.B. King was much more magnanimous and elegant in the way he played, but it’s still basically out of a very similar style – like a sophisticated form of Lightnin’ Hopkins.

On the record, you channel his sense of economy.
Deliberately so. That may be obvious, but just to be clear, it was a real artistic choice and took some nerve. I can’t believe how well it turned out. I really do feel this record was sort of blessed. Bassist David Piltch and I had never met or played together before – I went with him completely on the recommendation of Larry Goldings (who plays organ). There just aren’t a lot of upright players in Southern California who really understand blues and R&B; upright is pretty much relegated to the jazz world. That was in itself a bit of a risk.

I’ve known drummer Harvey Mason for many years. We’ve toured together and recorded together a few times, but always within a fusion situation. He was recommended by my tour manager, who is also my sound man and has toured, managed, and done sound for the band Fourplay, so he’s very well acquainted with Harvey. He said, “Man, you should hire Harvey,” and as soon as he said it, I knew intuitively, “That’s the guy.” Larry Goldings is just a genius and I knew he would be beautiful.

You have a knack for finding great material to cover. Have you done “Trick Bag” by Earl King before?
I did not know “Trick Bag,” and I didn’t know “Fair Child.” I did know “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.” Years ago, The Blue Line, with Roscoe Beck and Tom Brechtlein, talked about recording that song, but it never happened. The thought of doing that song has been in the background for me for quite a while. It was perfect for this record. It’s the first thing we cut in the studio and it wound up being the lead track.

How about “Bird’s Nest Bound” by Big Joe Williams?
I went looking for things that I had not heard before, and found it on a blues compilation that I’d never even listened to. The record was not fully conceived; it’s still relatively eclectic, but there’s a thread that runs through it that was the one element that I did have in mind. I wanted one band, one sound, each guy playing one instrument, and as little over dubbing of any kind to fill it out – I didn’t want to fill it out! I wanted all that space! Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue was kind of in my mind (laughs)! That and the Lonnie Johnson style of playing – simply, funky, and that hollow, woody sound.

Which explains your choice of a ’63 Epiphone Riviera using only the neck pickup for the entire record…
It has that sound. One thing I did was call Alexander Dumble and talk to him about it, because I use the Dumble Overdrive Special with a 2×12 cabinet, but it doesn’t give me that sound – it’s very close. Because of the 2×12 instead of the single 12″ speaker, the sound is a little more spread out. I wanted that real focused sound. I said to him, “What do you think I should use to get that?” He said, “Try the Overdrive Special with a single 12″ cabinet.” I thought, “That makes sense.”

I rented a Matchless open-back cabinet with a Celestion Vintage 30. That changed things. The whole notion was to bring my sound and just condense it, or distill it as much as possible. I never hit the overdrive – I never turned up. I kept the same volume all the time, and so everything that happens in a dynamic way is completely in the playing.

Your approach to the overall sound really distinguishes itself from your back-catalog.
In some ways it matches the Talk To Your Daughter record. That was pretty much one sound, one band, and everybody on one instrument. People are really getting the new record. It’s beautiful, and I’m just loving it.

This article originally appeared in VG August 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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