The Stables, ostensibly in Milton Keynes but actually in Wavendon, is a hidden gem of a venue that comes complete with a well-stocked bar, a beautiful auditorium, a CD shop, a sizeable car park (one that is rammed to capacity today) and an impressive array of talent on its billboards (including Warren Haynes, Albany Down and, of course, Robben Ford). Somewhat out of the way, it sits down a country lane and it is, in many ways, a perfect venue, with a bright, open atrium and friendly atmosphere.
Opening this evening’s performance is Greg Coulson, a young musician with a penchant for the sort of 50’s-infused rock ‘n’ roll that Andy Fairweather-Low cut his teeth playing. His is a brisk performance that mixes covers and originals, and it ends with Greg’s take on the Burt Bacharach classic ‘close to you’. A stripped-down set featuring just Greg and a bassist, Greg plays with some energy and skill and clearly goes down well with the crowd.
The hall is packed to capacity as Robben Ford and his band take to the stage and here the venue’s one drawback comes sharply into focus – whilst the band turn in a tight, energetic performance, the venue’s vibe, being rather that of a traditional theatre, leads to the audience proving rather more muted than I suspect they would have been had they been allowed to stand. Nonetheless, sparks fly as the power-trio dig deep to unleash a potent brew of jazzy elements and huge, bluesy solos, and feet are tapping everywhere by the time we hit ‘Howlin’ at the moon’, a blistering blues-rock track that packs a potentl groove. From the off it’s clear that we are in the presence of a master and Robben’s understated presence contrasts beautifully with the sparks that fly between drummer and bassist (both of whom have the opportunity to demonstrate their own formidable skills later in the set). With the impressive new album ‘Into the sun’ providing the basis for much of the show, highlights come thick and fast, and tracks like ‘Rainbow cover’ keep the audience hooked whilst a god-like version of ‘Rose of Sharon’ sees Robben’s guitar work soar. A far jazzier player than many of his contemporaries (aided by his stint with the mighty Miles Davis), Robben keeps the audience guessing with his inventive and graceful soloing but when he cuts loose, as he does on ‘Howlin’ at the moon’, the results are spectacular.
Highlights include an emotional tribute to Freddie King, ‘Cannonball shuffle’, an instrumental track in which Robben thoroughly explores his great skill to deliver a virtuoso performance, but the real highlight is the extended ‘High heels and throwing things’, which sees both bassist and drummer take centre stage for rhythmic solos that push the limits of what you might expect at a blues concert. Like Robben, who takes his leave whilst his rhythm section wows the audience, they have honed their talents and the results frequently leave jaws scraping the floor as the song is exponentially lengthened and sent spinning off into otherworldly sonic territory. It is moments like this, where the hairs stand up on end, that you live for in live performance and both Robben and his band fully deliver. Similarly, ‘cut you loose’ packs a powerful punch and leaves the audience clambering for more.
Robben Ford is an artist for whom music is a passion that will never bet sated. His guitar work takes from the worlds of blues and jazz and his music is timeless. Gifted with a talent for imbuing his songs with the sort of hooks that will keep you singing for months, his is a memorable performance and his band are undeniably exceptional, matching his talent step-for-step over the course of this wonderfully intimate show. Quite simply, Robben Ford is one of the finest guitarists alive today, and an opportunity to seem him perform is a rare and unmissable event. Whilst it feels a little odd to remain seated throughout such a show, the electricity generated by the band is unmistakable and Robben cannot return to these shores soon enough.
Huge thanks to Al Stuart for the live shots – you can check out his work here.