Marc Ford – Smilin’ Atcha
Marc Ford – Marc Ford and the Neptune Blues Club
September 23, 2008
Victim of Loudness War? No
At this point in the game, the blues has been given a considerable workout. Aside from being the root of jazz, R&B and bluegrass, the style has had a profound influence on rock music just as much as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. This is most likely due to its easily accessible format, which is based in a simple chord progression that provides the basis for haunting vocals and gut-wrenching solos to be added over. Thus, in 2008 it would seem nearly impossible to use the blues as a means of creating music that is original and vibrant, given the vast ground it has already covered.
A handful of artists can still breathe life into the blues, though, despite the well-worn path it has tread up until now. Marc Ford is one of the aforementioned artists, as his latest release, Marc Ford and the Neptune Blues Club (Blues Bureau, 2008) clearly illustrates. Track after track, Ford and his new band (comprised of Southern California’s usual blues suspects) deliver the familiar style with a grace and innovation that reawakens the heart, mind and soul of the listener. Like Eric Clapton before him, Ford’s familiarity with the blues allows him to wander freely in its pastures and prove that there’s still fresh water to be drawn from its well.
The album opens with “Main Drain,” a concise blues-rock number that gets things going nicely before giving way to “Locked Down Tight,” a gritty shuffle that marries guitar and harmonica into a catchy melody that provides the first of many memorable hooks the album has tucked away into its twelve tracks. It is also on this track that Ford turns in the first of many thoroughly-inspired guitar solos, firmly cementing his place next to rock’s best and brightest players. Unlike on his previous effort, 2007’s Weary and Wired, Ford’s lead guitar work seems pushed to the forefront, indicating that above all else, this album is meant to showcase just how lean and mean his chops are.
“Freedom Fighter” is the album’s first entry into the slow blues category, complete with a subdued-yet-powerful vocal performance from Ford. At home on any Gov’t Mule or latter-day Allman Brothers Band record, “Freedom Fighter” is perhaps one of the strongest testaments to the fact that the blues is still alive, well and able to pull on our heartstrings at a moment’s notice. The track also serves as the closest example of what it’s like to witness Ford performing live on stage, a feeling of spontaneity and in-the-moment flow abundantly present throughout.
Ford isn’t the only member of Neptune Blues Club that is given a chance to shine on the record. Keyboardist Mike Malone steps to the forefront several times throughout, “Don’t Get Me Killed” being the first and perhaps the most noteworthy. Distorting his vocals through his harmonica microphone, Malone delivers a killer performance here, reminiscent of but not stolen from some of John Mayall’s best early material. Ford gracefully steps into the background when Malone takes center stage, but his presence is still undoubtedly known. The guitarist alternates between a dirty finger-picked progression and bristling slide guitar work, arguably his best in years.
The album’s best track comes very late in the proceedings in the form of a soul-teased shaker called “Smilin’.” All the best elements of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and The Isley Brothers come into the mix here and, when mixed with Ford’s guitar and Bill Barrett’s harmonica, gel into eight minutes of pure perfection. This song actually defies the listener not to move to its groove and will no doubt be a staple of any live set performed by Ford from this point on.
The real success of Marc Ford and the Neptune Blues Club can clearly be attributed to the fact that for the first time in his solo career, Ford has finally found a band worthy of his own talent. Whereas in the past the guitarist seemed to be pushing a band that was always a step or two behind up to the speed of his massive talent, here Ford seems to be in the company of musicians that maintain his pace at all times. This in turn seems to push him to deliver his best work, which is presumably why no track on the album falls flat or sounds uninspired. So, although he is known for being one of music’s last true journeymen, after listening to this release we should all hold out hope that Marc Ford sticks with The Neptune Blues Club for a little while. After all, somebody has to keep the blues alive.
– Ian Rice
To purchase a copy of Neptune Blues Club, please click here.
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