Gig review: ROBBEN FORD – 02 Academy, Islington, 30 April 2015

ROBBEN FORD – 02 Academy, Islington, 30 April 2015

Robben Ford is the master of deep wrought grooves, exploratory solos and keen dynamics. He’s technician with a wonderful chops whose multi-genre proficiency allows him to explore lingering tones and unique arrangements.

He’s an understated player of great sensitivity who unravels intense solos and revels in intricate band interplay, while his limited vocal range is offset by intuitive phrasing.

Tonight he’s a generous band leader giving Hammond player Johnny Henderson – erroneously introduced as Johnny Howard – plenty of solos, while bass player Brian Allen gets two solos and leads from the front on the bass-led, funky riffed intro to ‘Howlin’ At The Moon’.

But it’s Robben’s guitar playing that is pivotal to a set comprising precise solos and extended extrapolations. His intuitive feel and technical excellence makes him a musician’s musician, or more particularly a guitar player’s guitarist.

ROBBEN FORD – 02 Academy, Islington, 30 April 2015

He reveals ever facet of his armoury on a series of inventive solos that never revisits the same riff twice. He also punches out all the reasons for his high standing in guitar circles, although this show also reveals the reason why he has never quite broken out of that circle.

Like a generation of jazzers before him, he relies solely on his musical ability and the intensity of his solos to make a connection with his crowd, rather than give anything of himself emotionally.

What distinguishes him from those same jazz musicians is that he refuses to be pigeon holed.  He’s as much a blues player as he is fusion player and his fans will doubtless argue he that channels all his emotion into his playing, as evidenced by the incisive solos on the magnificent ‘Midnight Comes Too Soon’ and his use of space and time on ‘Roses of Sharon’.

ROBBEN FORD – 02 Academy, Islington, 30 April 2015

His approach sometimes makes for awkward in-between song silences when the moment palpably cries out for interaction with the crowd. Early on in the set he turns one of those moments back on the crowd and says, “You really are quiet”.

No matter, his guitar playing speaks volumes, from his use of light and shade and subtle dynamics to the pursuit of little tension over a series of funky back beats. Then there’s the dazzling instrumental outings such as the crisp percussive attack of the B.B. King inspired ‘Indianola’, on which he conjures up a repeated chiming motif before bursting through the groove with some delightful uplifting licks.

Similarly on the self explanatory, Freddy King influenced ‘Cannonball Shuffle’ he locks in with his band to explore a shrill toned angular solo over Brian Allen’s walking bass line.

His gentle-to-whispered vocal draws us in as on a cover of James Cotton’s ‘Cut You Loose’. He’s even better on a marvellous arrangement of Sam Cooke’s ‘Fools Paradise’ on which he evokes Mose Allison’s phrasing, while his nuanced restraint is an object lesson in less is more.

ROBBEN FORD – 02 Academy, Islington, 30 April 2015

Robben’s tonal inflections and use of space allows each note to resonate and impact either side of some gently plucked bass before Johnny Henderson adds an immaculate solo.

Robben’s focussed solo gives the rather pedestrian ‘Same Train’ a renewed vitality and momentum, while the over extended ‘High Heels & Throwing Things’ benefits from his piercing notes, although disappointingly the song doesn’t really go anywhere beyond the band stretching a funky groove.

He rises again though on ‘Indianola’ and finishes with the heavier riff driven, finale of ‘Cause of War’. His set seems to be over in a flash but he rewards the crowd’s generous reception with a three song encore climaxed by the kind of intricately threaded solo that summarizes his appeal.

Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Daniel Quesada 

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