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Robben Ford: The Authorized Bootleg

Robert Spencer By

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Here's Robben Ford on acoustic guitar at Oakland's fabled Yoshi's in December 1995. The Blue Line is with him: Roscoe Beck on bass, Tom Brechtlein on drums, and Bill Boublitz on piano and organ. The place is packed and the crowd is wildly enthusiastic.

As well it should be. Acoustic Ford reveals him as supreme blues stylist, with a good sense of form in his solos that seldom fails to hold interest. His singing is well-suited to the milieu here; he doesn't try to sound like Howlin' Wolf, but there's no need for him to. He certainly carries the weight of these numbers just fine. The star of the disc, of course, is the beguiling sound of his axe. The first two tracks are straight-ahead blues: "When I Leave Here" is an easygoing opener; on "Chevrolet" he stretches out a bit more (to the tremendous pleasure of the crowd).

"Top of the Hill" is the first non-blues entry, sounding like an early-Eighties Dylan harangue-with-backbeat. "Start It Up" gives us Robben At Play in an up-tempo crowd-pleaser that certainly accomplishes its aim in spades. Afterward we get an extended introduction of the band; of course, some folks will enjoy this kind of verisimilitude. "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" is another blues. It's from the Sixties, and Robben credits it to Ray Charles. If my memory serves me right, it was also covered by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Robben's sounds different from both Ray's and Gerry's, and probably lands in the large area in between. This is Boublitz's showcase, and he demonstrates that he deserves Robben's accolades with a solo replete with deeply felt blues sensibility and a keen sense of timing.

Beck sets up an ostinato on "Help the Poor," where Ford plays his acoustic axe as if it were electric. Aside from a bit of a difference in timbre, I can't imagine he'd play this much different electrically. Then we have "Lovin' Cup," which Robben explains that he found on a Paul Butterfield Blues Band record with Elvin Bishop. Here we have his vocal versatility (compare his vocals on this track to "When I Leave Here").

Everybody sings, paradoxically, on "Tired of Talkin'," an Our-Relationship-is-Over blues. Here again I wonder about the "acoustic" label. Certainly he's playing an acoustic guitar, but this disc reminds me of some of those MTV "Unplugged" workouts where the arrangements, backing, and overall feel of the tracks obliterates the distinctiveness of the acoustic instrument. This is, in other words, worlds away from acoustic blues a la, say, Robert Johnson. Why not play acoustic blues without a drum set? (Ah, heresy.)

But this is a quibble. Robben Ford fans will love this one.

Title: The Authorized Bootleg | Year Released: 1998 | Record Label: Blue Thumb Records

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