Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A Riff Too Far


The Robben Ford Band at The Arches Theatre, Glasgow on 29 April 2013


Driving west along the M8 to Glasgow, I was thinking to myself why it was that I wasn’t particularly excited about attending the evening’s Robben Ford concert at the Arches Theatre. The gathering clouds reflected my mood, gloomy and full of frustration at the long awaited and overdue spring. It had been a long winter and the promise of spring was exasperated by the persistent cold weather. It might need a little more than a rock guitar virtuoso to drag me out of my melancholy.

The Arches Theatre is based in Victorian brick railway caverns right in the heart of Glasgow city centre, beneath the central station’s railway bridge. There are four arches in all, but only arch no’s 1 and 2 were required for the gig configuration, with access to the other two arch spaces being restricted by a loosely hung curtain at the interconnections. 

These are big arches, big enough to comfortably park a couple of steam engines or railway carriages in (maybe that was what they were originally built for?)

“We have lots of variety” one of the staff members told me. “Last week we had a major car launch here.”

The audience space was laid out in a seated concert configuration. The audience was predomintally composed of middle-aged males, with the odd female attendee dotted here and there. With the ongoing low temperatures, the seating area was chilly. Unfortunately, there would be little in the ensuing performance to warm me up.

Poor sound quality

The venue is generously equipped with overhead stage lighting racks, some back stage light columns, and two banks of expensive looking speaker cabinets, one either side of the stage. But the prospect of a good aural/visual experience was immediately dashed when the band struck up.

Ford’s guitar, piped through those PA stacks, was too bright and had so much reverb that it was difficult to distinguish one note from the next. I gave up trying after the second number.

The bass guitar sound was equally ill-defined. Most of the time it sounded like Brian Allen was playing the notes slightly off key, further compounding the poor sound quality. And his bass solos (there were a few) were jelly on an oily boat deck in a force 8.

Tony Moore provided the backbeat which was uninspiring. Just straight rock style drumming that seemed to be driven from the bass and toms, with little subtlety on the drums or cymbals to indulge the listener's finer rhythmic aesthetic.

Ford’s vocals were feeble and passionless, with lyrics that seemed to be past their sell-by date, retaining little of whatever emotional expression had inspired them in the first place.

In one song, Ford bemoand his implied relationships with all and sundry in a desperate bid for individual freedom. "I just want to be nothin’ to nobody, free like a bird.” In another he denigrated a life of late nights, boose and gambling with “my mama told me not to be staying out all night long drinking and gambling.” In the chill of the auditorium, these sentiments missed their mark by a mile.

The exception to the evening’s proceedings was a dazzling display on the Hammond organ by band member Ricky Peterson. There is one thing about so-called “blues” keyboard players that I’ve noticed over recent years – most of them can’t play a decent 12-bar blues solo. But Peterson was off the top of the scale, whipping up Jimmy Smith-like solos at the drop of a hat. And he had fire in his soul.

Monkeys at the controls

To be fair, forces outside the onstage personnel also had an impact on Ford's lacklustre performance.

“I’ve never seen such a weird light show” one attendee remarked disgustingly to his companion after the show.

I had to agree. At one point during Moore's drum solo, the lights were shut down completely for almost 8 seconds, leaving the audience (and more importantly, the drummer) wondering what was going to happen next.

Despite the expensive set-up, no doubt financed by generous Scottish government arts grants, the Arches' management must have employed a couple of monkeys from the zoo to operate the audio and light controls.

An unlit candle

Ford's problem is that he has become a victim of his own success. It's not always easy to maintain an emotional connection with your instrument and material when you're constantly on the road, playing night after night to a predominantly guitar-geeky audience. It seems that this constant gigging has become a daily (or nightly) chore, with Ford's acclaimed guitar technique feeding an endless stream of riff-hungry wannabe guitar players and awestruck admirers.

But an unlit candle, though elaborately adorned and embellished, is merely something you may look at and admire for a few seconds, then move on.

A lighted candle on the other hand is a completely different dynamic. Now you have something that reaches beyond itself, beyond its elementary components and craftsmanship; something that illuminates, tempers its observer’s mood, changing the ambience of its surroundings. 

Similarily, without this flame, this passion for the music, the musician is simply a mechanical robot, and the observer is untouched. 

In my view running up and down scales on the fret-board to impress an audience hardly counts as music. Surely the whole point of any instrument is as a vehicle for expressing human emotion that connects with the listener.

Whilst no one can doubt his ability, Ford appeared to be detached, dispassionate and adrift in an emotionally barren landscape. It would appear that, for this guitar virtuoso, it was simply a case of a riff too far.

So I asked myself the question "What’s the point?" I might as well have paid the £25.00 entrance fee to sit and watch some road workers digging up a pavement in Glasgow city centre. And hopefully, Ricky Peterson busking nearby to thrill on that Hammond Sk2 keyboard.

Personnel 

Robben Ford - Guitar, vocals
Ricky Peterson - Keyboard
Brian Allen - Bass

Tony Moore - Drums

Postscript

Perhaps the following video illustrates what Ford may have been trying to achieve in Glasgow's chilly auditorium, and what we missed - a warm and intimate atmosphere with relaxed musicians. The song is the jazzy instrumental "On That Morning" from the album "Bringing It Back Home", featuring the same band as appeared at the Glasgow gig (with the exception of Harvey Mason on drums). In fact it could be the theme song to my review!






References

If you want a couple of examples of what I’m talking about check out the following YouTube videos.

The first clip is from a concert in Paris 2013. Look at Ford’s expression. I would say he looks bored and disinterested, avoiding eye contact with his paying audience by staring into space; just going through the routine – another day at the office. As the song goes: 

       “You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
          When they all did tricks for you

                                    Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pf2UMQec5Go 

This next video sums up nicely what the sound was like in Glasgow. I watched this full concert video (some video footage is missing) in the comfort of my home on a Friday night to confirm if my negative impression of the Glasgow gig was mood related or not. If you manage to stay awake (my wife fell asleep while watching it) you’ll get my point after a while. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55hnF0unkdg

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