All thrills, no frills: Marc Ford tackles his music with no pretense
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
Let us, for a moment, consider the role of the vest in our society. Largely, it’s a useless piece of clothing, an antiquated reflection of the days when folks wore spats and ran a chain from the watch in their front breast pocket to their belt while wagering on that season’s crop turnout. Still, the traditional vest has hung around. Occasinally, you’ll see one hiding under a tuxedo jacket. Or, perhaps, you’ll see a fella wearing one at one of those old west recreations — this is a ghost town, pard’ner.
There was another place where the vest still made an occasional appearance now and again — the local rock and roll git’down. Sure, Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey took to wearing them sans undershirt in the 70s, but this was done as a practical method for showing off some polished pectorals. No, the vest appeared on guys like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Gram Parsons ... guys who couldn’t ever be accused of mugging for the camera. Bob Dylan never really had his hair in place or looked pretty for the masses, and that’s the way he liked it. Neil Young’s unkempt, scraggly look and larger-than-life mutton chops were not statements of vanity. Gram Parson’s locks of shoulder-length hair and denim were nods to the working-class heroes of his songs.
The three also shared something else, besides wardrobe — they were music first, always, above and beyond. Their music was their lifeblood. Neil Young battled labels, bandmates, fans and friends to keep his artistic vision in tact. Dylan shunned labels, spotlights and expectations in search of his muse. Parsons? He never did make it out of this world alive, and his two LPs stand as pillars in the vast ocean of 20th century music. He completely transformed the Byrds, invented country rock, and, sadly, wouldn’t be around to help steer it back away from the banality of folks like Glen Frey.
Enter, stage right, Marc Ford. Not even twelve months ago, Ford was waving goodbye to thousands of fans at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado, after a rousing show with the Black Crowes. On this night, in a tiny bar in Phoenix snug next a mexican restaurant and a barbecue trailer shack, Ford wowed a crowd of about 150 folks (including as many as 11 women) with an incredible display of all things rock and roll. Fluid slide lines, incredible tone, an outstanding batch of songs and the comfort of being in total control of the sound buzzing out of a set of overtaxed amps, Ford left no stone unturned after two sets and more than two hours of music.
And, wouldn’t you know it, despite the fact that it was 105 degrees and felt like the surface of the sun, he was wearing a vest on stage. That, folks, is as much a statement as anything. No different than a major leaguer wearing his socks high and his stirrups proud, Ford was declaring his stance in music loudly — he’s old school. He tours in a van, he plays Les Paul guitars, he opens with the sonic blast of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced,” he writes songs from the heart and, as clearly demonstrated, he’ll give anything to be able to play his music his way.
Ford seemingly left the Crowes quickly, but he wasn’t idle for long. Immediately after leaving the band, he was back rehearsing with his old mates from Burning Tree, Mark “Muddy” Dutton on bass and Doni Gray on drums. Teenage son Elijah Ford was also in tow, and soon, Ford had the guts of his second solo album, Weary and Wired, in the can and ready to roll.
“(The record) was in the works for about two years, and my making it was just me finally having the time to do it,” Ford said after the show. “I’d had a lot of those songs written for a long time; I’ve got more songs than I have a chance to play. So, when it came time to do it, with the Burning Tree reunion and rehearsals going well, we didn’t have to dick around too much when it came time to make the record.”
What emerged is the surprise gem of the year so far, even if it shouldn’t be so much a surprise. The record runs the table on rock and roll, from soul to blues to swinging rock, and Ford spins on a dime. The album sends the listener back to a time when dudes just made albums for the hell of it, free of A&R representatives, market share expectations and ready-for-MTV shlock; mainly, it’s fantastic. It’s not guitar for guitar’s sake, it’s guitar with real passion. One listen to the heavy, Crazy Horse-esque stomp of “Smoke Signals,” the Stonesy flair of “Dirty Girl” or the James Brown funk of “The Big Callback” confirms that this is, at the absolute least, the very best record any Black Crowe has had a hand in in more than a decade.
“A lot of the songs had been earmarked for a record for a long time, I just never had a chance to get them out before now,” Ford said. “Especially the rock songs — I’ve had those for a long time, and I wanted to get them out.
“I really wanted a variety. I like to have a lot of different things going on, but at the same time keep it cohesive.”
The disc itself, released on the Shrapnel subsidiary Blues Bureau, is packaged in a gatefold cardboard sleeve, and, sadly, hardly available anywhere. If your neighborhood independent record store carries it, thank your lucky stars, because you live near one of the coolest shops in the country.
In fact, those in attendance on this evening couldn’t even get their hands on it. The CDs hadn’t arrived on time to sell at a merch table, nor had any new, fancy Marc Ford T-shirts.
“Yeah, we have CDs; they’re at, um, amazon,” Ford joked with the crowd. “You can order it from there, and it’ll be at your house in, like, two days. So amazon is the best, probably.”
“And you guys can buy my T-shirt if you want,” Muddy chimed in. “Straight from the band!”
The mere thought of not having CDs or shirts to sell at a show would send most bands into convulsions, and rightly so. Venue receipts are only so much and record royalties scant, so the added intake from discs and clothing are usually what keep most smaller bands afloat. But, judging from Ford’s nonchalant reaction to not having stuff with him to peddle, it wasn’t an issue here. The issue was playing a gig for paying fans and getting ready for the summer jaunt to Europe that’s to follow. The issue was sharpening up the band, nailing those slide leads, and strangling that tone out of that goldtop guitar. Having CDs would’ve been nice, and would’ve sent some fans home happy, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t critical.
It’s also a sign of Ford’s learning curve at being in charge. Ford’s first solo trip, in the early part of the decade, was similar in its bare-bones approach. And after stints with Ben Harper and the Crowes reunion, he’s back to being his own boss, and it’s a lot to take in.
“A lot of it is learning all the different parts of it; it’s a lot more work,” Ford said. “I’m basically running a business now, and you have to be involved in every part of it. That’s a lot to handle. So, you surround yourself with good people and you learn as you go.”
Among those good people, as he put it, is his son, Elijah. The young Ford is skinny, baby-faced and wears his axe like a natural. And, when called upon, he's more than capable of ripping off a nasty lead.
“Having him here is great,” Ford said. “It’s great. It’s every father’s dream to be able to do what they love with their kid, and I get to have him on stage with me.”
“It’s awesome,” Elijah confirmed. “It’s what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and now I get to do it.”
It’s another testament to doing things his way. In his statement upon leaving the Crowes, on the eve of a fall tour, he noted that his hard-fought sobriety was at issue, and that he was working to preserve that. Here, sitting on a curb outside a bar, ripping through cigarettes and talking about new music and tours, you see it in action. With his son sitting across from him sipping on a soda can, the main concern is getting the gear in the van safely and remembering what, exactly, is the name of the bar they’re playing the next night. This guy has no interest in partying — certainly, enough fans came up to at least ask him about it.
“Naw, man,” came one response from Ford. “I’m going to bed.”
From here, Ford trucks up to Flagstaff for a guitar clinic in a music store and another gig in another bar. After that comes a slate of European shows, and then a full schedule of U.S. shows, mostly west of the Mississippi.
Musically speaking, this is his life now. In the rearview mirror are platinum records, year-long tours and headlining Bonnaroo. In sight is plugging away at promoting his record, his way, on his tour. And there’s not much else on the radar at the moment.
“I really don’t have any plans beyond this — do you know what the future will be? I don’t,” Ford said. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing now, and not worry about what’s coming next. I’ve got a record to sell now, so I’m just going to go out there and keep plugging away at it.”
So here it is. Econo-line vans, well-worn amps, and cheap chicken after the show outside of tiny venues. And, of course, some of the most smoking rock and roll being played today by anyone. His name isn’t screaming across marquees, but it doesn’t mean he’s not worth hunting out. Catch a show, and you’ll see four guys pounding away in pursuit of perfection, and they’ll be doing it for about $10 a ticket. You’ll see a man channeling the best of the blues, vest and all, for anyone willing to listen.
Running through his head, though, could be thoughts of the lighting, the band’s changes, merchandise, the next gig, working the crowd as a frontman, singing, lyrics, slides, leads... all the things the guy in charge has to think about while he’s strutting his stuff.
It’s not pretty, and it’s not glamorous. It’s not supposed to be. It’s old school. But with rock and roll, it really shouldn’t be any other way.
“Really,” Ford said, “I’m just trying to stay out of my own way up here.”
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org