T-Model Ford at The Rhythm Room on 7/29/2010

T-Model Ford
The Rhythm Room
July 29th, 2010

There's a scene in the 2003 documentary on the early Fat Possum Records roster, You See Me Laughin': The Last of the Hill County Bluesmen, where James "T-Model" Ford recounts to director Mandy Stern about a when he was 11 and his father savagely beat him, causing him to lose a testicle. "My little ball was hanging out," he states, describing how we went out into the garden, still uncertain as to what caused the ravaging, and dug a hole in the hot, damp soil, where he waited until his mother got home.

It's a pretty rough tale, but Ford delivers the story with a strange, calm other-worldly matter-of-factness. It's saying something that the story is just one of the crazy legends the Mississippi bluesman has cultivated, among yarns about his 26 children by five wives, the murder rap he faced and subsequent time on the chain gang, and his late start on the guitar, not picking up the instrument until his late 50's.

And yet, the man's still out on the road. He's one of the last of the last Hill Country bluesmen, with standard bearers like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Asie Payton having passed away, and last night he graced the attendees at the Rhythm Room with his unique take on the Mississippi blues, one so raw, ragged and loose.

"Ladies and gentleman, please give a big round of applause for Mr. James "T-Model" Ford," bellowed Ford's only accompaniment for the evening, drummer Marty Reinsel, of Seattle band Gravelroad.

"I've got this bad arm," Ford intoned, "But I'm gonna try and play this guitar."

While Ford's hand visibly gave him trouble during the set, his voice didn't seem to have any problems, booming through the P.A. with a mix of commanding power and soulful grit.

His hand did give him grief, though. He finished most numbers by rubbing his sore fingers. I was convinced six songs in that each on would be his last, but he didn't stop, stating a desire to play "maybe one or two more" five times.

Reinsel was clearly at Ford's rhythmic mercy, watching him intently for each change in tempo. To say that Ford isn't a strict guy when it comes to time signatures would be an understatement, each tune lurched and stalled as he followed the beat in his head, his foot always tapping to his own internal metronome. In the hands of a lesser artist it would have sounded like a mess, but Ford's "juke joint" playing illustrated what made that "Not Just the Same Old Blues Crap" motto of the early Fat Possum crew resonate so deeply with a generation of punk rockers and jaded indie-kids; giving real sound to the punk rock maxim that "it's not what you play, it's how you play it."

As one couple took the dance floor, Ford looked up and seemed to lock in with Reinsel, whose beat all the sudden became a steady one. When the floor filled up completely, Ford's playing became even more focused, and a giant grin took over his face. Bar patrons shouted encouragement, pounded beers and hollered for more as Ford rocked especially hard during a take on "Chicken Head Man," from his 2009 Alive Records release The Ladies Man.

"T-Model just had a birthday," Reinsel announced, "And we think he's 90 years old."

It's sometimes hard to review a show when it feels as special as Ford's set did last night. It's hard to maintain any degree of objectivity when you feel like you're witnessing something truly unique, something that gets rarer and rarer as each year passes on. Music this genuine, deep rooted, and soulful is in short supply, regardless of genre. T-Model Ford didn't play a perfect set, but while he was singing and blasting noise out of that piece-of-crap Peavey amplifier, it would have been hard to convince me that there was anything better going on anywhere.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: I guess I've been on a bit of blues kick. It's just hard not to admire the honesty and authenticity of music where the press sheet or P.R. guy doesn't have to convince you of anything, where the artist isn't out to get famous, isn't looking to get a decent rating on Pitchfork, and isn't going to get used to soundtrack some useless MTV reality show. Last night T-Model was looking to make some money, eat a decent burger, play an honest set and sell some LPs, and I'm reasonably sure that I watched him accomplish those goals.

The Crowd: As varied as they get: indie kids, blues aficionados, families out for the evening (really!), punk dudes, and one vato loco, who performed an interesting and frankly insane stomp dance combo for the crowd, shouting obscenities the entire time. 

Overheard in the crowd: "This is the blues, you know?" 

Random Notebook Dump: "I'm convinced he's gonna stop with each song- but this guy does not stop," with all sorts of comical underlines. 

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.