Robben Ford – Soul on Ten (2009)

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It’s been a while since the jazz/soul-flavored blues guitarist and singer Robben Ford has last released a live album, and given that he’s one helluva performer, Soul on Ten was the exact right album he needed to put out right now. Since 1998’s The Authorized Bootleg, Ford had since moved on from his Blue Line blues power trio to record four studio records (and a live tribute to Paul Butterfield’s music under the auspices of the Ford Blues Band). True, there’s also been a couple of concert DVD’s. With Soul on Ten, Ford fans finally get the stage versions of his newer material and a few reworkings of some electric blues standards.

Even as hearing these songs rendered live is a big draw, it goes without saying that the main ticket is his guitar playing. I once read a comment years ago that said that Robben Ford has forgotten more guitar licks than most guitarists will even learn. Every time I hear Robben rip on his axe, I realize that declaration is no exaggeration: he seems to come up with fresh new licks every time he solos. He’s soulful, creative, complex and tasty as they come.

Backed by a lean-and-mean drums and bass rhythm section with Neal Evans’ organ dropping by for five of the eight live tracks, Ford chose some of the better cuts from three of his last four albums, and more crucially, songs that translate well to the stage.

From the opening chords of the first cut, “Supernatural,” I was taken aback not so much at Ford’s wah-wahed rhythm guitar, but a heavy, booming and slippery bass accompanying him. Turns out that’s Larry Carlton’s boy, 26 year old Travis (step aside, Wolf Van Halen). Ford, who often unfairly receives criticism for an unimaginative singing voice, does nevertheless improve on the studio version from the 1999 album of the same name with phrasing and feel, perhaps because there’s no Michael McDonald-led backing vocals to fall back on. The showstopper is still Ford’s masterful negotiation with that wah-wah pedal, and he works it like no one has since Hendrix was alive.

The instrumental taken from Blue Moon “Indianola” as presented here is also superior to the studio version. Although running at nearly identical length, the lack of a vibe-killing sax solo provides Ford more room to stretch, and the rhythm section, especially drummer Toss Panos, keeps pace and even inspires the guitarist with some rambunctious skin-beating.

“There’ll Never Be Another You,” from 2007’s Truth, is a bass-driven, groove-oriented mid-heat rocker. Again, the energy level is higher playing it in front of an audience. Ford’s soulful collaboration with McDonald from Supernatural, “Nothin’ To Nobody” benefits from Evans’ B3 participation, and it’s one of Ford’s better written songs, a song that may not be blues in structure but that blues feel is all there. Especially when Robben uncorks a righteous solo. Carlton trails behind with a thumb-popping bass solo of his own and laters turns on his own wah-wah pedal. “How Deep In The Blues” is the prime track from Truth and is well-done here, too. Carlton’s bass is busy and is as deep in the funk as he wants to go.

A couple of trusty blues covers are handled for this gig, too. Howlin’ Wolf’s old mainstay “Spoonful” is done up Robben Ford style: impeccable blues-rock riffs backed by a propulsive bass-drums bedrock. Elmore James’ “Please Set A Date” segues right into Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have To Go,” like as if they were always part of the same song.

“Earthquake” is a Ford original first introduced on this album. The playing on it is plenty competent but honestly, this is the weakest of all the tunes on this record.

Studio recordings of two other new songs are tacked on to the end of this record, too. Even while these songs are listenable and backed by superior session players (Larry Goldings, Jon Button, Karl Denson), they lack the spark of the live performances, and the songs themselves could probably use a little more work and placed in an all-studio album instead. Since the club gig that the live recordings were culled from spanned two nights, I’ll bet there were more worthy performances that could have gone in these spots instead. Like, say, a live rendition of “Lovin’ Cup,” perhaps?

Even with those two flat studio cuts included, Soul On Ten, out August 11, is the pick of Robben Ford’s four Concord Music Group releases. On stage, he is in his element, in command, and leads a muscular road-tested band. This is more like we like to hear him.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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