Marc Ford – Keeping the Tree Burning

When he first joined the Black Crowes in 1992, guitarist Marc Ford was already a known quantity. He had nearly broken through years earlier with Los Angeles power trio Burning Tree–a critics’ darling at the time but unfortunately one that barely registered on any commercial radar. Burning Tree, however (which included Ford’s past and current bassist pal Mark "Muddy" Dutton), was what bridged Ford to the Crowes; the two bands had toured together, and the Crowes at the end of 1991 were looking to replace original guitarist Jeff Cease.

Nearly twenty years later, following creative times both fat and lean and two tours of duty with the Crowes, the 41-year-old Ford is older by fact, wiser by his own admission, and hardly throwing in the towel. He seems to be as busy as ever, and just returned to the road with a brand new band and a meaty new collection of songs.

Crowes’ Nest Comings-and-Goings

The dexterous, fiercely inventive Ford was the Crowes’ axeman during the
band’s mid-1990s peak, a fertile period that produced such potent efforts as Amorica (1994), Three Snakes and One Charm (1996), and the unimpeachable Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992), which remains one of the era’s essential documents. He was dismissed from the band in late 1997, identified as a drug casualty even if by then, as Ford noted at the time, much of the Crowes roster was probably ripe for a "Behind the Music" showcase.

 What was undeniable was that the Crowes lost something following Ford’s exit, and when Chris and Rich Robinson revived the band from its four-year hiatus in 2005, they reached out to Ford to be part of the action. It was refreshing to see Ford–and, of course, bassist Sven Pipien, keyboardist Eddie Harsch, and, eventually, drummer Steve Gorman–back in the saddle, and a week of secret shows in the Northeast kicked things off, followed by the band’s official return ("All Join Hands") in seven, sold-out nights at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom in March 2005.

A national tour followed, and the Crowes bookended their reunion year with a December run that included both a high profile Madison Square Garden show on New Year’s Eve, and the night before, a two-set blowout at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, RI–a performance that for this reporter ranks among the finest Crowes shows ever.

Then in 2006 speed-bumps appeared. The band embarked on a summer shed tour that looked fantastic on paper–putting the Crowes, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, the Drive-By Truckers on a stacked bill–but was in many markets both undersold and musically spotty. A week and a half before a scaled-down fall tour of large clubs and theaters was set to begin, Harsch was out of the band, done in by "personal health reasons."

 Then, two days before the start of the tour, on September 6, 2006, Ford was also out, this time on his own terms. His lawyer faxed the Crowes his resignation; Ford wasn’t going to lay years of work toward sobriety on the line again.

 "It was an inspired one," Ford states unequivocally, discussing the Crowes decision in an e-mail. "It was time to go back out, and then I realized that I had to make a change–a clear cut, drastic change–and I had to do it right then."

‘Weary and Wired’
Ford has never shied away from starting over; between his two Crowes stretches, he performed with the Chris Stills Band and Blue Floyd, and led groups like Federale and the Sinners, while also holding regular court at the Malibu Inn, where he and Chris Robinson famously patched things up and played all-covers duo shows in 2002. (Ford also co-wrote "Sunday Sound," which appeared on Robinson’s 2002 eponymous New Earth Mud debut). Ford was also recruited by Ben Harper for Harper’s 2003 world tour, and appears on Harper’s 2006 album Both Sides of the Gun.

 This time around, no sooner did Ford re-divest himself of the Crowes and return to Los Angeles than he reunited with his former Burning Tree mates, played a reunion show, and looked toward a fresh band entirely. A new album was soon in the works, along with a new roster that includes Ford, Dutton, Ford’s son Elijah on organ, guitar, and bass, and more recently, drummer Dennis Morehouse, who replaced Burning Tree drummer Doni Gray in Ford’s new lineup.

 "I said to the band the other day, ‘We know we have a sound together that’s ours. It’s time to have a name.’ So, everyone agreed after tossing around some really bad names, and settled on ‘Marc Ford’s Fuzz Machine,’" Ford says. "You should know they [Muddy, Elijah, and Dennis] can eat you out of house and home."

 The album in question, "Weary and Wired," which arrived in March, is one of the year’s under-the-radar finds. It’s definitely a guitar record, but it’s also true to Ford’s versatility, moving from country rock ("It’ll Be Over Soon," "Dirty Girl") to grittier, punkier stuff ("Featherweight Dreamland") and swampy blues ("Smoke Signals") with an appropriately 70s Neil Young-style haze.

 "Creatively I just wanted to put out a great record, and I was very happy with it," Ford says. "I wanted something I would enjoy listening to, and [goal-wise], nothing changed."

Ford as singer is capable, with vocals more mature and varied than we’ve heard before, if never quite transcendent. Ford as guitarist still loves to stretch out; "The Big Callback" is a gauzy instrumental that wouldn’t sound out of place with Band of Gypsys, and his take on Willie Dixon’s oft-covered "The Same Thing" is nasty–those raffish progressions and alternately sweet and dirty tones have been missed.

 "Things really do get better when you get older, at least for me, so far," Ford says. "You gotta live a little to have something really good to sing about. I’m much more comfortable and in control, and a much better singer than I’ve been before."

 While previous ventures have seen him staying close to home on the West Coast or joining other tours as an opening act, Ford and his band-mates are wasting no time in covering the country, headed South and back West in October and November when his current stretch of Northeast dates concludes. Beyond that, who knows.

 "All I know is that I know nothing," he offers. "If people don’t start getting out of their houses and going to see live music, they could lose it. This is hard work and very expensive to do, and the new generation has been brought up in front of the computer–for everything, they socialize on it, shop, you name it. There is no need to ever have a relationship to learn how to live and work it out with other people."

 "That’s part of the beauty of a band," he adds, even if "today you can do it all yourself so easy on a computer. Who needs the headache, right?"

When not a bandleader or hired gun, Ford relishes his role as a producer, and he’s as excited about his associations as he is about his own output. His most recent efforts were for the New Mexico-born country upstart Ryan Bingham, whose new album "Mescalito," drops from Lost Highway on October 2.

 "It’s one of my all time favorite records to listen to," Ford says. "He’s great, and he’s going to have a long career."

Still Bad?

The reconstituted Crowes, now touring with British producing wiz and former Oasis and New Earth Mud sideman Paul Stacey in the guitar stead, have a new album on tap for 2008. Band management has also opened the vaults; a two-disc collection called The Lost Crowes finally made sections from the long-bootlegged Tall (1993) and The Band (1997) sessions commercially available.

 Ford was there, of course, for that stretch, which most Crowes fans consider the height of the band as both a songwriting and concert force. He isn’t looking back, but he can’t help but remember: "We were the baddest motherfuckers around."

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