Mississippi Bluesmen Are Down And Dirty

T-Model Ford and Spam deliver the kind of raw blues that many thought died with Howlin' Wolf.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Greenville, Mississippi's T-Model Ford is not the easiest man to understand.

That's not to say he's cryptic (although he's sometimes that, too), but

simply that the 76-year-old's speech is sometimes unintelligible.

Thus, many folks watching Ford perform at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat on

Thursday wondered if they had in fact heard him correctly when he

stepped to the microphone to testify just after finishing his 50-minute set.

Leaning on a wooden crutch, Ford got a wild look in his eye and said what

sounded like, "You know, I only got one nut -- but I'll show it to y'all if

you want to see it."

Sure enough, Ford was offering to let us all bear

witness to his singular testicle, which, after receiving cheers from the 50

people on the floor, he proceeded to pull from his unzipped fly.

Afterward, he raised a single finger in the air, and capped off the

exhibition shouting, "Number one!"

As surreal as the situation was, no one could say that Ford wasn't telling

the truth. Headlining a rare bill of three guitar and drum duos --

including Twenty Miles with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Judah Bauer, and the

North Mississippi Allstars, featuring the able sons of Memphis producer/ piano

veteran Jim Dickinson (Replacements) -- Ford was indeed number one, although his drummer

Spam wrestled the spotlight from him on several occasions.

Ford and Spam (born James Lewis Carter Ford and Tommy Lee Miles,

respectively) began the night appropriately with the instrumental "T-Model

Theme Song," one of the highlights from the singer's recent debut album,

Pee-Wee Get My Gun (Fat Possum). Clad in a navy blue Dallas Cowboys

shirt and short, black cowboy hat, Ford sat down in front of the mike and

started into the song, a rollicking number that shows off the pair at their

tightest. Ford smiled a lot as he twisted his shoulders into the rhythm

like a peacock showing off its plumes, all the while strumming an ugly-ass,

black Peavy guitar that looked as if he'd snatched it from Quiet Riot, but sounded raw and funky. He

kept his solos simple and rare, using them not to cakewalk, but rather to

blow fresh air into the hypnotic patterns he and Spam were grinding out.

Back behind the drum kit, the 6-foot-6 inch Spam bounced his right foot on

the kick drum pedal as if he were a guilty man waiting to take the witness

stand. Nonetheless, he kept an amazingly steady beat, a skill that assumes

additional weight when playing with Ford, who is known to wander off beat

on occasion. Oftentimes, just as the guitarist was about to pull out a

short solo excursion, Spam would throw his left shoulder down as he hit

hard on the snare, trying to place Ford again in the groove like popping a

bone back into joint.

At other times, the thin, thirtysomething drummer

would sit up high on his stool, grinning with one drum stick clenched

between his teeth. While at first glance the move seemed designed to

garner hoots from the crowd, it soon became apparent that the technique was

necessary for Spam to restrain his ever-ready left hand from hitting the

snare while his right concentrated on his tom.

Although Ford played a number of fine songs from his record ("Turkey and

the Rabbit," "Feels So Bad" "Let Me In"), some of the night's best moments

popped up on other tunes. One unidentified early number locked into a

particularly living rhythm. Despite the fact that the groove kept pace for

a full seven minutes, it felt as if it could have gone on enjoyably for

four hours. At their best, Ford and Spam brought their rhythms to life,

such that one could work all day or jam all night with that living beat by

their side. At the same time, the duo knew exactly when to quit. Their

take on Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man," for example, included just two

choruses and not a single verse. It was all over in 90 seconds, but it was

as complete as it needed to be.

The key to Ford and Spam's success in part rested in the necessity of

negotiating each song. At one point, Ford looked back at Spam seemingly to

announce that a particular number was going to end. Immediately after Ford

caught his eye, however, Spam turned his own head away as if to say, "I'm

not done yet," which prompted Ford to swing back around, continue playing,

and wait for the whole thing to start again on the next song.

Before Ford and his partner took the stage, both Twenty Miles and the North

Mississippi Allstars threw down enjoyable sets of their own. In Twenty

Miles, guitarist Judah Bauer was especially adept at generating gritty,

repetitious riffs that clicked in place with the listener's ears like a

train wheel locked on a track. Unfortunately, Bauer's lyrics and vocal

delivery were often insufficient to pull the audience along once the riffs

fell into place.

For their part, the barely legal Allstars showed off chops that belied

their years. At times, it was tempting to question their authenticity in

singing plaintively about Highway 61, but as Richard Hell (via Lester

Bangs) pointed out, authenticity is a bunch of crap in rock 'n' roll, and

the same might very well apply here. At the very least, the Dickinson

brothers convinced a number of people in the audience that more bands

should abandon second guitarists and bass players, and strip their sound

down to the bare essentials. [Fri., Sept. 26, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]