A Day In The Life of a Great American Guitarist: Marc Ford Burns Through Atlanta
As a writer, I'm still not comfortable with this BLOG thing--write it once and never touch it again...but considering my time constraints, it's a forced march...so here goes...
Marc Ford was playing yesterday at Smith's Olde Bar here in Atlanta. My daughter celebrated her birthday with friends at her dance academy. On the way to the party, I called Marc to coordinate our plans to eat barbecue before the show. The phone rang, and he answered on the third ring in his laid back drawl,
"What time will you be in town?"
"Well, I gotta stop by the guitar store here in town. How long does it take to drive from Charleston to Atlanta?"
"Four or five hours..."
"Maybe three and a half. Just don't speed through South Carolina. The cops are frisky for strangers in a hurry."
"Okay, I'll call you when I get into town," Marc said.
My friend Rachel was unable to attend due to a severe case of the flu, so I flew solo. On the way to Smith's, I listened to Ryan Bingham's new CD Mescalito, produced by Marc Ford. Mescalito is a great record and will bring Bingham--rightfully--worldwide attention...he'll be opening for the Drive By Truckers later this month. A while later, Marc calls back to inform me he's thirty miles out of town.
Thirty minutes later, the white van pulls up. Mr. Ford is driving with his hat resting on the dashboard. We give a soul brother shake, and he asks me with a shit-eating grin, as he holds up a box of candy,
"Can I interest you in a peanut cluster?"
"Thanks man, but it's too early for me."
"You're right. It's way too early."
I meet the band--Muddy (bass/keys), Marc's son Elijah (guitars), dreadlocked drummer Dennis and road manager-photographer Coy Koehler. I carry a couple of Marc's guitars up the steps as they set up and soundcheck. Marc posed as I took a couple shots of his custom made James Troussart guitars. I took 52--too many-- photos to post here, so...another day. Smith's Olde Bar is a familiar room to me. I've seen many bands play here countless late nights. I've even read poetry with Bloodkin from this stage. There's a warm feeling to the room.
When a thorough soundcheck is complete, the band scatters for a pre-show meal. Marc and I decide it's not the time to fight the Saturday night Fatt Matt's rush, so Coy orders food from downstairs and Marc and I go for a walk. He moved the van. He sat in the pilot and I the co-pilot seat listening to the STAX boxset I suggested to him months ago upon release. I ignored my Georgia Bulldogs were stomped by Tennessee earlier today, and Florida played LSU closer than predicted, but...
Marc and I sat in the van, in a dark, mosquito-infested alley behind Smith's talking about the road, Bingham, women, funny music stories, encounters and upcoming plans. I even tried on the man's hat. Then we walked across the street for cigarettes. I snapped a few photos of Marc inside the Exxon.
"I haven't been able to find American Spirit cigarettes since New York", said Marc stuffing three packs into his denim shirt pocket.
Some great musicians are shitty human beings...and fans should be happy they only hear the artist's work because to know the artist is often a grave disappointment. However, this is not the case with Marc Ford. He's one of the most laid back guys I've ever met. He's also quite hilarious. His demeanor proves graceful as his playing. After all these years, we've become accustomed to the other's hi-jinx. When someone screamed out during soundtrack, Marc snickered, "Uh-oh, caucasians afoot..."
There's a certain exilaration one's gets when crossing busy Monroe Avenue--dodging traffic--with Marc Ford. Marc spent a lot of time in living Atlanta when he was in The Black Crowes. "Hell, Atlanta kind of adopted me as a son." Ford crossed the globe with the Crowes many times. Ford played in the Crowes when they shared the stage with musicians like Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Allman Brothers Band, George Clinton & P Funk, Taj Mahal and many others. His days with the band cast a long and wide shadow, on his history and theirs. He played a vital role in the band's sound for years. He abrubtly quit the Crowes in September 2006 to pursue a solo career.
"I knew it was gonna be hard. But I wanted to prove I could do it. I bought this van specifically for this run. I got a good deal too," he laughed.
"When did you play here last? I think I saw you and Chris (Robinson) play with the Jayhawks here...was it 94?"
"No, it was 92. They were opening up for us. We did a little acoustic thing. 15 years ago."
We talked about how media and music are now in a different frontier, and we discussed ways to manipulate the technology to our advantage. We walked back to Smith's. Marc and I sat alone in the dressing room talking. Elijah would walk in, smoke a cigarette, walk out. He talked a little. Coy showed me some tips on using my camera and Dennis showed me how his finger splits open when he plays drums and how his remedy of super glue fixes the wound.
The guys from Blackberry Smoke came by and said hello to Marc. They're really nice guys. They told a great story about a famous rock and roller I just can't repeat. A great band from Atlanta and I highly recommend them--real shitkicker music. They asked Marc if he knew a guy whose name I can't remember, and Marc said with a laugh, "Hell yeah, I know him--we were in Jefferson Steelplex & The Neptune Society together". Arcane facts learned by listening. We start gagging around with band names and we decide FunkBone is a good band name. Countless jests. Marc played me some music he recorded with this female vocalist named Marissa...amazing versions of "How Strong Is A Woman", "Spirit In the Dark" "Wang Dang Doodle", "Tell The Truth" and a new song Marc penned called "Just A Girl".
Marc brought out his laptop and showed me photographs from Compound Studios taken by Coy...one particular eerie shot of Marc standing under an old cherry tree that will soon see the light of day. Marc gave me a couple tee shirts out of his personal travel bag.
"This is a vintage shirt. This is the last one. Take it." Ford fans know the shirt as a psychedelic Ford smoking a cigarette.
I took more photos. Marc pulled out his Fender Strat and began filling in solos to the first opening band--Blues Old Stand's--songs. I must say, to sit across from Marc Ford on the couch as he plays stray, unrehearsed riffs or familiar songs is nothing short of amazing. Then he pulls out the slide with a natural sleight of hand. I ask a few technical questions about playing, guitars, etc. which he provided insight with a patient grace. Those fifteen minutes probably will serve as the best six-string advice I'll ever get. We talked about the last few times we got together, and all that happened in between.
People walked by the open dressing room door just to get a glance at "The Man". A beautiful blonde walked in and introduced herself. She told Marc she loved his music. You could see this was a scene he was very familiar with and he handled it with an easygoing nature. Another cutie walked in requesting an autograph which Marc obliged. With time to kill, Marc showed me a program on his computer where you can distort your face like standing in a circus mirror. We gagged around with that for a couple of minutes as he took two shots of us mugging in front of the camera. We were interrupted at one point by an extremely drunk fella who proceeded to get three inches from Marc's face, and proclaim his love for his guitar playing. We went back to what we were doing to discourage any more dialogue with the drunk, who stumbled away. I told Marc there was now a chance I'd see him in Macon and Athens next week. When he got back to L.A., we'd pursue other ways to keep everyone informed and entertained.
Blackberry Smoke rocked, but it was a Marc Ford crowd. Smith's Olde Bar, despite it's brutality on the artist (steep load in stairs, no private restroom, no heat or air depending on the season, no protection from lurking drunks) is a great, intimate place to see a show.
Marc opened with "Smoke Signals". He played a Weary And Wired setlist..."Dirty Girl", "Just Take the Money", "Featherweight Dreamland", "Currents", a Willie Dixon cover "The Same Thing" as well as Neil Young's "Vampire Blues". Soulful virtuosity at its finest. He also rendered a new song called "Future Too". I'm missing a few. The beautiful blonde hypnotically danced next to me all night and it damn near broke my heart.
It was interesting to see the local intelligentsia and musicians standing near the stage watching Ford's left hand. I even think I saw the Ju-Ju Hound/Georgia Satelitte Rick Richards standing near the soundboard. The place was hot and the band looked road weary, but they sure didn't sound like it. Elijah proves a formidable guitarist in his own right. Earlier, I asked Marc how Elijah liked the road. "He loves it". Just then, Elijah came in complaining he slept on his back wrong and it was sore. Marc kidded his son, "Boy, you ain't been in that van long enough to say you're sore. That doesn't start until your thirties..."
Ford's playing evokes a thick blues sound, but he can play heart-rending country twangs better than anyone other than James Burton or Dickey Betts. Muddy plays a solid bass over Dennis' powerhouse drumming. Elijah's brilliance flashed throughout the night, once during a new song when he found a new groove around one of the old man's solos. As individual players, they all possess a high-degree of talent.
Marc led them through a scorching rendition of "Just Let It Go" from his It's About Time CD. The studio version of this song marked one of the great Allen Woody's last studio recordings. Marc closed the show with a mean blues-laced "Are You Experienced". No one in the crowd left disappointed...they just stood five feet from one of America's greatest living guitarists while he played....
After the show, I went backstage and bid Marc and the guys good night. My ears were ringing loud when Marc shook my hand and said,
"James, I always love to see you. Let's do it again next week...."