Jorma and friends pick through the Valentines blues

by Ryan Snyder

This Valentine’s Day was a treat for blues fans, as three phenomenal guitarists teamed up for an evening at Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre. Former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen led a bill that includedvirtuoso Robben Ford and the soulful Ruthie Roster for Guitar Blues, a tour the arrived with the promise of revived standards and unique collaborations. Former Greensboro mayor Keith Holliday came on just before tip-off to pump up the crowd of blues fanatics with a few defining words.

“I was lucky enough to see the sound check beforehand,” Holliday said. “Just be ready when this place starts to melt.” Hyperbole is almost an art form when properly used, but context is important as well. What melts one music fan’s face right off their head might scarcely leave another flushed. While his comments elicited from me visions of blistering electric guitar solos and long, wailing tremolos, much of the show was really as far from that as possible. The first set was strictly acoustic and not necessarily the Leo Kottkebrand of fret board acrobatics either. Mildly subdued finger-picking dominated both Foster and Kaukonen’s sets, with not a single instrument plugged in until Ford took the stage after intermission. Foster took her spot on a stage littered with all manner of acoustic and electric stringed instruments, microphones and even a drum set cast to the rear, almost as a divination of things to come. She picked up a glossy metal resonator that bounced the lone stage spotlight all over the cathedral-esque walls of the Carolina Theatre like a campfire shadow. Jessie Mae, she had named it, after Jessie Mae Hemphill, a pioneering soul guitarist and grandmotherly figure to which she also penned her opening number in homage. Foster was graceful on the fret board while at the same time as vociferously spirited as even the best Motown ever turned out. Her short set gave introduction to another of her anthropomorphized guitars, this time a simple six-stringed acoustic named Tina. Tina, Foster recounted, was named for one of her all time great influences, gospel singer Albertina Walker just before paying tribute with Walker’s “I’m Still Here.” Foster turned the stage over to the great Jorma Kaukonen after just a few songs, though assuring the audience that they had not yet seen the last of her. It seems that Kaukonen’s days as the psychedelic lead guitar for counter-culture icons the Jefferson Airplane are long past, as he’s traded in the proud permanence of his sprawling body art for a more unassuming tan sport coat. The man whose band declared to an entire generation to “look what’s happening out in the streets” appears to have withdrawn from the political upheaval business, as his generation may have actually grown older despite the defiant tenor of the aforementioned classic Volunteers. His sleepy finger style was decidedly in contrast with Foster’s Delta Blues upbringing. He opened with the traditional number “True Religion,” a song recorded and often played by his band Hot Tuna.

He stuck to standards like “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” though he did manage to sneak in Airplane’s hit “Trial By Fire.” The arrangement of the show was a bit strange, leaving Ford to be cast as the main event rather than arguably the most wellknown name on the bill. Despite the pure ability displayed by Foster and Kaukonen, the diminished energy level of the opening set left me feeling a bit groggy. Hopes were high on my part, however, that Ford’s electricity could revitalize the room. Ford came in with his own reputation as a stand-out guitarist after working with the likes George Harrison, Joni Mitchell and Gregg Allman, in addition to releasing 18 albums over the course of his 37-year career. Having seen him perform with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, I was well aware of his amazing chops beforehand. His tone is completely one-of-a-kind and he manages to get more sound out of a small pedal setup than most guitarists could ever dream of doing. So why was I so disappointed with his performance? It may be more of an acquired taste for some blues fans, but I found his phrasing to be choppy and directionless for such an accomplished player. Most of the electric set with bassist Dewayne Pate and drummer Gabriel Ford was marked by Ford’s noodling in favor of delivering the succinct, ripping eight-bars for which he’s so well known. Finally, midway through the second set, the three performers began to fulfill the bill’s promise of collaboration, with Foster joining Ford on keys. Later, Kaukonen reappeared for “Rock Me Baby” and the Yardbirds’ “I Wish You Would.” Foster came on stage to complete the triumvirate for covers of Bob Dylan’s “You Got to Serve Somebody” and the encore “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” While the format was a little unbalanced — constant rhythmic accompaniment with revolving guitar seats would have been preferred — the sheer mastery of the three principals was enough to scare away anyone’s Valentine’s Day blues.