Album review: ROBBEN FORD – Live At Rockpalast In Leverkusen

ROBBEN FORD – Live At Rockpalast In Leverkusen

Repertoire [Released 19.05.14]

Robben Ford’s double CD and DVD ‘Live at Rockpalast in Leverkusen’ offers a contrasting snap shot of the jazz and blues guitarist in trio and quartet mode at the same venue, but separated by 9 years.

The former Yellow Jackets/Jimmy Witherspoon/Miles Davis/Joni Mitchell and George Harrison guitarist is a ‘player’s player’, big on technique and feel, if not excitement.

He’s a guitarist who can make even the most mundane tune sound interesting. And that’s exactly what he has to do sometimes in two concerts that at their best find him in exhilarating form and at worst finds him rescuing forgettable songs with unforgettable solos.

He crosses over from jazz to lilting blues with hints of rock, on solos that explore a wide variety of tones, tempos and feels. On the 2007 trio concert, he revels in a mix of deep solos, strident shuffles, and occasional sinewy attacks, as on ‘Riley B. King’ – his ode to BB King – before a further dedication to Freddy King on his self penned ‘Cannonball Shuffle’

His thin vocal struggles on the funky ‘The Way You Treated Me (You’re Gonna Be Sorry’), but it’s offset by Travis Carlton’s dynamic wah-wah bass solo and a shower of Robben’s own tremulous notes. His spiky solo also rescues cousin Gabriel’s ‘Too Much’ which sounds not unlike Muddy’s ‘I Want To Be Loved.’

Long time fans probably won’t worry too much about any of this and will doubtless lap up the effortless, fluid playing and chiming notes to be found on the pulsating groove of ‘Indianola’. It’s the defining moment of the 2007 concert, as the trio are in perfect synchronicity as Robben’s incisive solo fills the big room with dense note clusters.

‘Peace of Mind’, is also one of his best songs and comes with a call for tolerance: “Where fire meets fire, we burn away the common ground.”  It notably picks up momentum on the second solo which is full of resonant notes. Paul Butterfield’s ‘Lovin’ Cup’ is also tasteful, poised and elegant, while ‘Supernatural’ evokes Hendrix with a brusque wah-wah inflected solo.

The 2007 concert may lack strong material and has to overcome some ordinary vocals, as well as Robben’s own introverted stage presence, but ultimately it sparkles on the back of his magisterial playing and tight band interplay, all neatly captured by the multi camera German crew.

1998’s Robben Ford & the Blue Line has notably stronger material and a fatter sound because of James Slattery’s keyboards. The locked in groove of ‘Help The Poor’ sets the standard, while ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues’ is a cool acoustic and organ led blues.

Snooky Young’s ‘Chevrolet’ is given a heavy-duty funk treatment, while the self penned ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is a tightly wrapped stop-time instrumental with organ accompaniment.

‘Tired Of Talkin’ finds Robben at his most expansive on a swaggering shuffle, but a misguided example of band democracy leads us into a redundant 2 and half minute drum solo from Tom Brechtlein on the intro to the  funky instrumental ‘The Brother (For Jimmy & Stevie’). Given that this was presumably a supporting set, it’s a wasted opportunity.

‘Live at Rockpalast’ is mostly of interest because it’s Robben Ford’s long over due live album and because of the DVD shoot of the 1998 band. The impeccable camera work captures the very best moments of a masterful guitarist polishing some ordinary material and occasionally making it sparkle. ***½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

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