POPMATTERS review of T MODEL FORD & Gravelroad “Taledragger”

T-Model Ford and Gravelroad: Taledragger
By Alan Brown 21 April 2011

T-Model Ford is making up for lost time. Twelve months after his excellent Alive Records debut The Ladies Man, the 90-something bluesman from the North Mississippi hill country is back with a vengeance. And this time he’s not alone. Gravelroad have been backing the Taledragger, intermittently, live and on record—including sitting in on the afternoon jam session that produced last year’s completely acoustic LP—,ever since they walked out behind him on stage at Minneapolis’ Deep Blues Festival in 2008.

The Seattle band play what they like to call “dark blues”, and when Ford joins them, the crossroads at midnight is never far from your mind. On superb retellings of blues staples like “Big Legged Woman” and closer “Little Red Rooster”, the fuzzy, thick-as-molasses, reverb-fueled blues-rock-chug of the trio menacingly oozes behind Ford’s blacker-than-blue cracked growl.

Over the course of the eight songs, Gravelroad’s guitarist Stefan Zillioux, bass player Jon “Kirby” Newman, and drummer Marty Reinsel (he also provides backing rhythms and helps out generally on the bluesman’s solo tours) are joined by two of the record’s producers, former Soledad Brother Brian Olive (sax, keys and guitar) and Outrageous Cherry frontman Mathew Smith (guitars, B3 and fuzz bass), alongside slide guitarist Mike Weinel in backing Ford. Olive and Smith bring a subtle ‘60s pop and soul-jazz groove to the music that counterpoints perfectly with Ford and the band’s sinewy juke-joint blues.

“Comin’ Back Home” and its follow-up number “Someone’s Knocking on My Door” are perfect examples. Both slow churning blues songs are punctuated by bleating baritone sax—there’s also one hell of a sax solo on the outro of the former—, and underscored by shimmering Hammond B3 that makes the numbers weep and growl with tension while Ford howls at the killing moon. The latter track beefs up the action with some scything electric guitar—a great way to ease you into the next track, a monolithic reworking of Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” where Ford’s muddied Delta blues style transmutes via surges of wah-wah guitar, vocal echo, and nacroleptic drumming into the hypnotic stoner psych-blues territory of bands past and present, such as Cream, the glorious Wooden Ships, and their offshoot Moon Duo.

Elsewhere, Muddy Waters’s “Two Trains Coming” is retold in an epic seven minutes as “Same Old Train”, with Olive providing barrelhouse piano accompaniment to salacious electric blues guitar. Ford’s languorous drawl fittingly inhabits original number “I Worn My Body for So Long” as gentle slide guitar helps carry the bluesman’s fragile voice through to the close of an acoustic number that could very easily be an out-take from the Ladies Man sessions, but fits perfectly into the plugged-in atmospherics here.

With a little help from his friends, T-Model Ford has once again walked into the studio and bettered himself. The only thing missing is these guys cutting loose on another version of his signature tune “Chicken Head Man”.