Robben Ford is one of the great guitarists of our time, and on his latest Blue Thumb Records release Supernatural, he draws on the extremes of his tremendous songwriting, improvising, and vocal skills to create music that is powerful, accessible, and danceable. Supernatural is a watershed record for Ford - an aptly-named collection from an artist whose work is consistently awe inspiring, yet which always remains faithful to a heartfelt, effortless groove.
Because he has conquered many musical challenges with such graceful ease, Robben Ford has been labeled a musician's musician. Ford makes wide use of subtle and unclassifiable surprises in his music, whether it's through the dramatic shift in style from song to song on an album, or the way his bluesy guitar solos might leap into a streak of jazz-inflected harmony.
These are the signs of artistry, and they mark nearly every moment of Supernatural. The album moves between soulful rhythm and blues, rock, pop, and funk with well-crafted horn charts and string arrangements. Heartfelt lyrical revelations come at every turn. From his passionate singing and soloing on the lead-off track, "Let Me In," to the sultry moves on "If," to the drive and rumble of "Loving Cup," Supernatural blends the full range of Ford's best work and showcases it all in an integrated, fully-realized statement.
In many ways, Supernatural is both a comforting reflection on an astounding career and a defiant move forward. Produced by veteran Susan Rogers (Prince, Barenaked Ladies, and David Byrne), the album is sparked with appearances by some of Ford's finest associates from the past. Vinnie Colaiuta, who also appeared on Talk to Your Daughter, Ford's acclaimed first recording for Warner Brothers in the late '80s, demonstrates true modern drum mastery; former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald turns in some trademark vocals throughout Supernatural, and adds piano tracks to "Deaf, Dumb and Blind," which he co-wrote with Ford. The record also features funky Wurlitzer piano by Russ Ferrante of Yellowjackets, the chart-topping fusion act which was formed in the late '70s as Ford's backup band and brilliant B-3 organ work from Ricky Peterson, who Ford met while playing with David Sanborn. Ford's singer/actress wife, Anne Kerry Ford, adds to Supernatural with her first vocal appearance on one of her husband's records.
Robben Ford's songwriting takes bold and unexpected turns on Supernatural, especially on the sprawling, gospel-tinged "Water For the Wicked," which was also co-written with McDonald. The arrangement is a complex and uplifting piece of work, featuring organ, layered vocals, and interlaced acoustic and electric guitars. For the string arrangements, particularly in the somber ballad "Don't Lose Your Faith," Ford enlisted the service of pianist Roger Kellaway, a friend and bandmate from Ford's L.A. Express/Joni Mitchell days. Kellaway (whose piano playing is heard daily by millions in the closing titles of the television classic All in the Family) creates lush string sections which serve beautifully as the song's intro and solo interludes. Ford's "Hey Brother" is poignantly reminiscent of '70s-era blue-eyed soul, embellished with his thematically developed, searing guitar lines, and guided by a terrific vocal. The beautifully-composed strings, along with a floating trumpet solo, create wonderful interplay with Ford's nylon-string classical guitar on "If," a high point of the record and some of the most ambitious work Ford has ever undertaken.
Such material represents a dramatic shift from the tone of Ford's last studio disc Tiger Walk - a loose, jam-oriented instrumental effort recorded in New York. Soon afterward came The Authorized Bootleg - a live acoustic trio album augmented by keyboardist Bill Boublitz. That set also represented the last recorded appearance to date of Ford's band, The Blue Line, with drummer Tom Brechtlein and bassist Roscoe Beck. The Blue Line served as Ford's main creative vehicle since their eponymous debut in 1992. It was followed by Mystic Mile, which included standout Ford originals like "Busted Up," and "Misdirected Blues." 1995's Handful of Blues demonstrated Fords's songwriting craft and guitar virtuosity on "Chevrolet," "Rugged Road," and "Good Thing."
Those recent chapters in Ford's career were built on an ongoing tradition of musical exploration and change. His earliest noted work - beyond his longtime filial association with Northern California's Charles Ford Band - led him from the blues to jazz, to a series of concerts and recordings with the legendary Joni Mitchell and later, former Beatle George Harrison. His winding travels as a sought-after session guitarist have found him recording and performing with a spectrum of artists that includes Bob Dylan, Charlie Musselwhite, Rickie Lee Jones, David Sanborn, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Witherspoon, Charlie Haden, and countless others. He went on to form a group for his first solo recording, The Inside Story, in 1979 and the band later went on to record on its own as the Yellowjackets.
In the mid-eighties, Ford played with jazz titan Miles Davis, providing bluesy, fusionistic solos that had the maestro grinning on stage and deeply lamenting Ford's eventual departure to continue his solo career. In the years since, players as respected as Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton have marveled at his work, and he appeared as a featured artist in Musician magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century" issue. His concerts continue to combine the best of blues, jazz, and rock - all infused with the searching passion of an endlessly developing artist.
With Supernatural, Robben Ford has created a new and delicate balance between the singer/songwriter and guitar hero residing within him; it's a soulful, mature record that will carry his unique gifts far beyond the audiences he has cultivated as a world-class virtuoso. For a veteran artist as gifted as Ford, the road ahead promises to be as exciting as the one he has already traveled.