Robben Ford would seem to be Guitar Town’s Guest Of Honor at the moment. The multi-faceted, California-based singer/songwriter and guitar virtuoso has been playing residency shows at the High Watt. He did a sold out clinic at World Music Nashville. And he sat down with keyboardist/professor Jen Gunderman for an in-depth interview at the Blair School of Music. Wow. We can only hope this has stirred up insane amounts of interest in his show-closing set at Music City Roots this week. I have the highest of hopes. Because Ford, a dynamic blues and jazz visionary since the 1970s, was named among the top 100 guitarists of the 20th century by Musician magazine. And he’s one fourth of a superb mid winter lineup.
I’ll have more about Robben shortly but we have to dwell first on the unique opportunity presented by this week’s show-opening band, Nashville’s latest grand-master, love-over-money, locals-only super-group. Does the name Jeffrey Steele trip your trigger? It should, because he’s the whole Nashville enchilada: star songwriter, producer, guitar player and singing powerhouse. And he’s guru-level experienced, having had bands and deals and publishers and high level friends since the early 1990s. Steele came of age in Los Angeles, where he played a variety of sounds on the Sunset Strip. His band Boy Howdy had regional success, but it was moving to Music City in 1994 and writing songs for others that made Steele a major force, with dozens of charting records and number ones. In recent years he’s focused on performing again, and his big weathered voice and guitar prowess has made him a Nashville must-see. Now with Sons of the Palomino, he’s assembled a band that nods to and revives the California country scene that informed his early years. They’re super new with no real web presence yet, so it’s unclear if they emphasize Burrito Brothers covers or original material in that vein. But we know that the impressive cast includes pedal steel master Paul Franklin and Larry Franklin (no relation) on fiddle. This should swing.
Now then, I have a special place in my heart and music collection for “guitarists’ guitar players,” or so it would seem. While the world at large swooned over Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eddie VanHalen, I was totally seduced by those who were lesser known by everyone except their colleagues: Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Bill Kirchen. These have been my gods. And in that family and company I think it’s fair to include Robben Ford. He’s an original who took a grounding in the blues into all kinds of challenging territory. He’s performed with, if you can believe it, George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Mavis Staples and many more. Amid all this collaborative and sideman work he formed important bands and released a large catalog of varied albums under his own name. One can get a feel for his sophistication and fluidity from a handful of very recent recordings, like his duo LP Unplugged with our local master Larry Carlton (featuring tricky, fascinating blues) and a modern jazz album called City Life with Kenny Garrett, Bill Frisell, Charlie Hayden and more. I’ve fallen for the latter really hard working on this preview. And I will, to my own surprise and relief, be seeing Robben for the first time when he takes our stage. Perhaps you’re in the same boat. I know we’re in for a tour de force.
Sometimes a band offers a clearer self-conception than I possibly could, and that’s the case of the Underhill Family Orchestra, which describes itself as: “a rowdy, warpaint-wearing, arm-swingin’-foot-stompin’ 6-piece Rock-and-Roll/Americana outfit from the Alabama Delta. Since their formation in 2009, these twenty-somethings have produced two albums worth of music and played all over the southeast and the midwest bringing their sound, which mixes gypsy/jazz/folk/spiritual/soul/rock-and-roll and other surprises, to the ears and hearts of thousands of people.” That’s a Music City Roots match right there. And rounding out the bill we’ll hear from South Carolina/Georgia dude Zach Deputy, a bear-like songwriter and musician who creates loops on stage to support his jammy folk/reggae. There’s a lot of spirit and joy flowing from Zach’s music so it’s bound to make our third set infectious.
So it should be an impressive show, especially for guitar geeks like us. To adapt a phrase from the early 20th century, what’s good for Ford is good for Americana.