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Guitar Blues: Jorma Kaukonen, Ruthie Foster, Robben Ford

February 25, 2009

The guitar is the foundation upon which all blues is built, and Guitar Blues features three of the most acclaimed blues players in America today: Hot Tuna's Jorma Kaukonen, the legendary Robben Ford, and the phenomenal rising star Ruthie Foster have joined together for a very special evening of music featuring the wonderful six-stringed instrument that is the heart and soul of the genre.

Jorma Kaukonen

In a career that has already spanned nearly a half century, Jorma Kaukonen has been the leading practitioner and teacher of fingerstyle guitar, one of the most highly respected interpreters of American roots music, blues, and Americana, and at the forefront of popular rock-and-roll.

He was a founding member of two legendary bands, The Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna, a Grammy nominee for his highly acclaimed “Blue Country Heart,” and the most in-demand instructor in the galaxy of stars who teach at the guitar camp that he and his wife operate in Southeastern Ohio.

With his latest CD, Stars in My Crown, Jorma proves that he is continuing to explore and grow, and that he is at home in numerous musical genres.

Following the purchase of his first shiny new Gibson, he met Jack Casady, the younger brother of a friend and a guitar player in his own right. Though they could not have known it, they were beginning a musical partnership that continues to this day. Together they went to concerts and clubs all over town, but it was blues, jazz, and bluegrass clubs (where they often had to exaggerate their ages to get in) to which they kept returning.

Jorma graduated from high school and headed off for Antioch College in Ohio. There he met Ian Buchanan, from New York City, who introduced him to the elaborate fingerstyle fretwork of the Rev. Gary Davis. Jorma was hooked. Kaukonen was soon introduced to that city’s burgeoning folk-blues-bluegrass scene and many of its players. He would leave college and undertake overseas travels before returning to classes, this time in California. A friend who taught banjo mentioned to Jorma he and another friend were thinking of starting a band—was Jorma interested?

Though he was less interested in rock than in the roots music that was his passion, Jorma decided to join. An acquaintance liked to tease his blues-playing friends by giving them nicknames which parodied those of blues legends. Jorma, he had decided, was “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane.” When the new band needed a name, Jorma mentioned this, and thus the Jefferson Airplane was christened.

He sent word back to Washington, where his teenage musical partner Jack Casady had taken up electric bass. Did Jack want to come to San Francisco and be in a band? The Kaukonen-Casady duo created much of the Jefferson Airplane’s signature sound, and Jorma’s lead and fingerstyle guitar playing characterizes some of the band’s most memorable tracks. But the folk and blues muse was strong. Jorma and Jack would jam whenever they could, and would sometimes perform sets within sets at Airplane concerts. The two would often play clubs following Airplane performances. A record deal was made and Hot Tuna was born. Jorma left the Jefferson Airplane after the band’s most productive five years. Hot Tuna had become a full-time job.

Over the next three and a half decades Hot Tuna would perform thousands of concerts and release more than two dozen records. The musicians who performed with them were many and widely varied, as were their styles: from acoustic to long and loud electric jams, to acoustic once again, but never straying far from their musical roots. Yet, Hot Tuna today sounds very much like Hot Tuna of 1970, except that the guys have continued to develop as musicians, so today they are even better.

On July 3, 1988, in Key West, Jorma met a young woman named Vanessa Lillian. He was a musician and she was a civil engineer, but there was a cross-discipline spark that quickly took flame. They married and have been together ever since, partners in every sense of the word. Together they operate Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp, located among fields, woods, hills, and streams in the Appalachian foothills.

Ruthie Foster

Superlatives are rare in album titles, and for good reason: unless you’re a living legend or a legend-in-the-making, you’re all but begging for a crash course in humility. So if you’re going to stick a word like “phenomenal” in front of your name on a record cover, you damn well better have the goods to back it up.

“Those are some big shoes!,” laughs Ruthie Foster, who, just for the record, is really one of the most humble and down-to-earth artists you could ever meet, phenomenal or otherwise. She admits to initially having “quite a few reservations” about calling her fifth album The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, crediting both her producer, noted Austin-based “swamp music” guitarist Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne, and her label, Houston’s Blue Corn Records, for making that particular gutsy call. As for how they came up with it, well—just give it a listen, and you’ll understand.

The big shoes just fit—so much so that calling this particular record by this particular woman at this particular time in her life and career anything but “phenomenal” would be akin to false advertising. If you haven’t yet been introduced to the music of this prodigiously gifted singer and songwriter from Texas, you’re in for a major epiphany. And if you’ve been following Foster’s career ever since her self-released, 1997 debut, Full Circle, or even since her 2002 breakthrough, Runaway Soul, you’re in for an even bigger surprise, because you really haven’t ever heard Foster until you hear her now. Simply put, mama’s gotta brand new bag.

“Change is kind of scary for a lot of people when it comes to music,” says Foster. “But I’ve had a lot of changes in my life the last couple of years here, both personally and musically, and it was just time to step out. Running across Papa Mali when I did was great for me, because he’d been showing up to a lot of my shows here in Austin, and he mentioned that he heard so much more in me than what was coming across. 

That really got my attention, because I knew that there was more, too. I’d been wanting to stretch out for quite some time. And he had a way of just saying, ‘It’s time to fly, Ruth.’” 

By pretty much anyone else’s standards, Foster had already been soaring for years. Since returning to her native Texas in the mid-’90s after a period of walkabout that found her touring with the U.S. Navy band Pride (“We were bad ass!”) and even spending a few years in New York City under contract to Atlantic Records (“I think they were looking for Anita Baker meets Tracy Chapman,” she muses. “I sent a headshot to my dad, and he said, ‘Who is this white woman with my baby’s nose?”), Foster quickly established herself as one of the acoustic music world’s brightest stars. From the Kerrville Folk Festival to Austin City Limits to stages all across North America and Europe, she was winning thousands of new fans a night and selling a staggering average of 100 CDs per show. At a festival in Canada, she even broke Ani DiFranco’s record by selling 1,000 CDs in a single day. (“I love Canada,” laughs Foster.)

You can still hear traces of that Foster on her new album—most notably in the rootsy fun of “Beaver Creek Blues,” the gospel revival spirit of “Mama Said” and the dark, stomping a cappella thunder of the Son House cover “People Grinnin’ in Your Face.” But Papa Mali had an entirely different kind of Ruthie Foster sound in mind when recording commenced at Austin’s Congress House Studio, and Foster was delighted to discover that his vision tapped deep into her own roots as a music lover. Together with a crack band, they set out to make an honest to goodness classic soul album. The kind that, in a different era, with a different singer, could just as easily have been called The Phenomenal Sam Cooke.

“A lot of folks don’t know this, but that really is my background,” says Foster. “I come from a deep background of old soul and blues and even R&B. Early on, long before I ever got into the folk thing, I was doing more soul on acoustic guitar than anything else. And that’s always been a part of the sound that I have.”

The difference, she says, is all in the instrumentation—and more importantly, the groove. That became apparent early in the sessions, when Foster blew the dust off an old song of hers called “Heal Yourself” that she had recorded a decade earlier for her first album. 

In the wake of recent events in her personal life and her continual evolution as an artist, the lyrics seemed timelier than ever. But when she started playing it on acoustic guitar again—the instrument she wrote it on—Papa Mali gently inquired if she’d ever tried it on piano.“He kind of tricked me, really,” she says. “But I went over to the piano in the room, and a groove comes out of nowhere on this thing. We’re all looking at each other, and George picks up his sticks, Glenn picks up his bass, and we just go. We’re rolling.”

After the healing comes empowerment, which brings us to what is arguably The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster’s most powerful statement: “Phenomenal Woman,” a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou originally set to music by Canadian artist Amy Sky and David Pickell. “I’m a big, big fan of Maya Angelou,” says Foster. “I grew up wanting to be a poet. So running across this poem in a song was just beautiful to me. I had to record that one, because to me, that’s the essence of where I’m at right now. I know God ain’t done with me yet, but I’m feeling pretty good. I’ve got a lot to say and a lot to share, and I’m going to keep doing it through music. And the message in ‘Phenomenal Woman’—I think every woman should feel that.”She pauses, then adds with a laugh, “I think every man should feel that, too!”

Robben Ford

Robben Ford has had a diverse career. He taught himself guitar when he was 13 and considered his first influence to be Mike Bloomfield. At 18 he moved to San Francisco to form the Charles Ford Band (named after his father, who was also a guitarist) and was soon hired to play with Charles Musselwhite for nine months.

In the 1960s, long before pop artists were backed by the generic, computer-based accompaniment that is commonplace today, singers often recorded with formidable house bands, including Booker T. & the MG’s and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The former band came together at Stax records in Memphis, laying down timeless grooves on hits by artists like Otis Redding, Albert King, and Carla Thomas. The latter group—based in Muscle Shoals, as well as New York and Nashville—enhanced such classic tracks as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” and Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.”

Growing up in the ’60s, a teenage Robben Ford spent countless hours listening to artists like Aretha and Otis, at the same time soaking in guitar blues from Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King. In his early 20s, Ford went on to join blues luminary Jimmy Witherspoon’s band. But soon Ford experienced a diversion from the genre. In 1974 the guitarist was discovered by saxophonist Tom Scott, whose progressive fusion group, L.A. Express, then teamed up with Joni Mitchell to support her Court and Spark tour and play on two of her albums (1974’s Miles of Isles and 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawn).

Today, possessing a résumé that includes stints with an impressively broad range of other musical personalities—Miles Davis, George Harrison, Little Feat, and the Yellowjackets, among many others—Ford has demonstrated an uncanny adaptability similar to that of the MG’s and the Muscle Shoals group. The guitarist has effortlessly traversed genres without compromising his exquisite, blues-based playing and singing. So it’s only natural that on his latest album, Keep on Running , Ford tips his hat to Muscle Shoals and the MG’s, offering fresh takes on soul classics, in addition to serving up several glowing originals.

Ford’s journey throughout this CD, his second for Concord Records, covers many musical miles. 

This performance was co-sponsored with the Wheeler Opera House.

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