If he does run on liquor, T-Model Ford gets great mileage to the slug. According to Amazon.com’s arithmetic, James Lewis Carter Ford is 86 years old – the man himself isn’t entirely sure – yet once he has been helped into his chair and passed his electric guitar, the blues veteran looks as lithe and sinuous as a king snake.
A previous gig he played here reputedly lasted 3½ hours. Maybe that’s why a sign near the stage reads: “The management requests that you do not buy alcohol for T-Model Ford.” Restricted to one glass of whisky, he still goes the distance.
Hailing from Greenville, Mississippi, his sound is as far from the ersatz, Albert Hall outings of Eric Clapton as the blues can be. Aided by the drummer Lightnin’ Malcolm, a gentle farmhand of a white-boy who is half- carer, half-acolyte, it barrels along like a battered pick-up truck. Honed at dusk-till-dawn juke-joints, this low- down, rhythmic groove should be the accompaniment to boozy mayhem and dancing. Us Brits make a polite but enthusiastic fist of it, nodding in turkey-fashion and responding when Ford hollers “Jack Daniel’s time!” with whoops of our own.
Raw and hypnotically repetitive, the songs – improvised from Ford’s four albums for the Fat Possum label – revel in Ford’s badass reputation. In his youth, he was sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang for murder. Among the last of a line of “genuine” bluesmen, he knows he is a rare beast and loves every minute in the limelight. His voice – now more wailin’ coyote than Howlin’ Wolf – may be losing power, but his stamina is not. Two hours into the set, Ford has plenty of gas left.
He did, however, close the third and possibly final “festival of blues” at this venue, which has been given six months to leave by its landlord, Ballymore Properties. The Spitz is rightly opposing the move, but perhaps the most effective direct action would have been to ply Ford with drinks. Who better than “The Tail Dragger”, as he styles himself, to keep a musical sit-in going until judgment day?
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