By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Few links remain to the golden age of Delta Blues. Most of the artists are dead, and the generation that followed grew up cities far away from sharecropping plantations. T-Model Ford’s appearance at Davey’s Uptown on Thursday night was a rare opportunity to witness firsthand the roots of the blues.
Ford drew a diverse group of about 60 fans, spanning several generations and including bikers, punk rockers, hipsters, musicologists and the curious. What they got was either an embarrassment of riches or way too much.
Fliers promised Ford would be performing with a band, but his only backing was Gravel Road drummer Marty Reinsel. Together the pair coaxed a sound that distilled nearly every traditional variety of the blues into one long shuffle. The guitar-and-drums duo played with a simplicity the White Stripes and Black Keys could only imagine.
There was no set list. For two and a half hours, including a 20-minute break, Ford flipped through the vast blues songbook in his mind and played whatever started coming out of his fingers. The results included well-known songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “My Babe” and Ford originals such as “Chicken Head Man” and “Cut Me Loose.”
Seated on a cushioned chair, Ford looked completely relaxed. During the glacial pauses between verses he gazed across the room, a gentle smile on his face as if he had no cares in the world. Across Ford’s lap was Black Nanny, a Peavy electric guitar that looked like it had been stolen from a hair metal band. Ford twice called it the best guitar in the world.
Regardless of their origin, most songs were based on a two-chord shuffle that had nowhere to go and was in no particular hurry to get there. Most songs ambled along for about five minutes, several stretched to nearly twice that length. Ford’s smooth singing was almost stream-of-conscious, picking up verses halfway through, mixing stanzas and inventing new verses altogether.
Reinsel’s drumming was the element that held the set together. He held back on most songs, altering his emphasis ever so slightly to keep the endless boogies from becoming monotonous. The more aggressive rhythms on “Chicken Head Man” had a Keith Moon energy.
Between songs, Ford massaged the arthritis in his right hand. After one number, he declared it “Jack Daniels time” and downed the contents of the shot glass sitting on his amplifier. He told a story about getting married last week and told the women in the room that “If she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride.”
But what was hypnotic for some was tedious for others and near the end of the first set the chatter from the bar in the back of the room threatened to take over the space. After a 75-minute set, Ford took a break which eliminated many of the less-dedicated fans.
If the night had stopped there no one would have felt shortchanged. No one is sure of Ford’s age, least of all the man himself, but most peg his birth sometime during the Harding administration. Unlike many bluesmen, Ford didn’t start playing guitar late in life and didn’t record an album until 1997 when he was discovered by the Fat Possum label.
The hour-long second set reprised many of the favorites from the first set, including “Sallie Mae” and “That’s Alright.” By the third go-round of “Hoochie Coochie Man” what started as innocent started looking senile. It didn’t stop anyone from dancing, though. As a friend said at the end, when you’re 90 years old you can play the blues any way you want.