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Rockin' Robben

Grammy-nominated Ojai guitarist has eclectic musical taste.


Last week, the Grammy nominations came in, and the list included the guitar world's gentleman wailer (and, for the last few years, Ojai resident) Robben Ford, in the best instrumental rock category.

But what's in a category? Instrumental blues-rock-swamp-soul might be a more accurate descriptor for the song in question, "In the Beginning," from Ford's soulful 1997 album "Tiger Walk," on the Blue Thumb/GRP label.

Ford isn't new to the Grammys, this being his fourth nomination since his 1988 album, "Talk to Your Daughter." He was also connected to a Grammy nomination, by association, as the guitar-slinger on the late Jimmy Witherspoon's acclaimed 1996 album, "Live at the Mint."

For a few years now, Ford has lived with his wife, actress and vocalist Anne Kerry Ford, in Ojai, a happy alternative to life in Los Angeles. Ford has had an ambivalent relationship with show biz and the record industry over the years.

Ford travels around the world as a solo artist, and periodically ends up in the area, settling into the old Ventura Theatre, for instance. But this Saturday night, he'll take his band to Santa Barbara for a special occasion: a benefit concert for the ambitious "Mid-Winter Music Festival" in town.

This will also be the first time that Robben and Anne Kerry Ford will share a bill with the Transylvania Mountain Boys, led by violinist Gilles Apap. Ford's band, with drummer Gary Novak, bassist Chris Chaney (who plays with Alanis Morissette) and keyboardist Jim Slattery, will crank up the juice later in the evening.

But Ford cranks with grace. One of his gifts as a guitarist is his ability to generate heat with his stinging, blues-inflected riffs while also maintaining a subtle, almost vocal way of phrasing, dipping into jazz for seasoning. When Ford agreed to an interview this week, he had just returned from a very different sort of road trip, spending two weeks at a Buddhist retreat near San Luis Obispo. He's made similar retreats for 20 years.

Does it provide a cleansing, balancing out the rigors of life on the road and in the studio?

"Cleansing could be an aspect of it," Ford commented, "because you are witness to your own mind. Just in so doing, it has the potential of creating space. The basic practice is calming the mind. It's not easy to do. You could come out of a retreat just totally wangled, looking at your own self spinning. But generally the effect is pretty positive, even if you don't see it right away."

It has been a unique and twisting career path for Ford, who came to Los Angeles in the early '70s, after making a splash playing with blues great Jimmy Witherspoon, who died last year. One thing led to another, and Ford wound up playing with a sterling list of musicians, including Joni Mitchell (that's his solo on "In France They Kiss on Main Street"), George Harrison, Miles Davis, Michael McDonald, Little Feat, and Rickie Lee Jones (acoustic guitar on her "Pop Pop" album), aside from his late-blooming solo career.

In recent years, Ford had an opportunity to reunite with Witherspoon, after his brother, Patrick Ford, a musician and owner of the Blue Rocket label, invited him to play at a Norway blues festival with the veteran. A live album was released, they played more gigs, including at the Mint in Los Angeles, and then came another live album, "Live at the Mint," picking up a Grammy nomination.

"It was like a father-son relationship, really. It was very close. There was anger and love, both. I must say I'm really glad we got to hook up again after all those years. That was amazing. It was my brother who made it happen. We continued to connect in that way, made another record and played some gigs. He's someone who will be missed."

For nearly a decade, Ford worked with his regular band, the Blue Line, featuring bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tom Brechtlein. But the last year or so, he's been working with other rhythm sections and enjoying the change.

"I needed a breath of fresh air from the Blue Line," he said. In March, the band will release a new album, "The Authorized Bootleg," recorded "unplugged" at a San Francisco radio station. That will be followed by a European tour.

"I had always had the door open a little bit for the Blue Line because it's a great band, a great blues and R&B band. It just seemed to make sense to do something, partly because this album is coming out."

Ford is just eclectic enough in his musical tastes that he surprises himself when it comes time to make an album, as was the case with "Tiger Walk." He knew he wanted to play with the rhythm section led by drummer Steve Jordan, with bassist Charlie Drayton and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who have backed Keith Richards in the past. But the stylistic direction changed midstream.

"Things always turn out different than I expect," Ford said. "I started that project with the last song on the album, 'Comin' Up,' the most rocking song. I thought it was going to be like that, but when I started writing the songs, they turned a different way. I'm not really a rocker. I always seem to gravitate toward more of an R&B and blues feel, a softer sound."

Therein lies his gutsy charm.


Robben Ford, Anne Kerry Ford and the Transylvanian Mountain Boys, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at the "Beaux Arts Ball," at the State Street Ballet Studio, 322 State St. in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $35; 682-4597.

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