August, 2009

The news was devastating. Richie Hayward’s health was in severe jeopardy. He would need time off for tests. The process could take a year or more, no one was sure. Originally he was slated to continue touring until the end of the year. But that was not to be. Richie and I were in the back of a van in Gothenburg, Sweden, en route to the sound check and show that evening when he let me know he would not be able to tour beyond the upcoming show in Billings, MT, August 8, (the last of three one-off’s scheduled before the bulk of dates taking place after August 18).

A week later I was at home in the U.P. of Michigan on the phone with Paul Barrere, who was out in California. We discussed a short list of drummers we thought might be able to sit-in for Richie. This was a continuation of a discussion that had taken place in Europe. But now time was very short. I finally said to Paul, “I know the solution has got to be right in front of us, and it suddenly hit me”…..”Gabe Ford!”

Gabe Ford, born June 8, 1973, has a pedigree of considerable note. His father, Patrick, a drummer in the Bay area, has worked for many artists over the years, including Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Brownie McGee. Gabe’s uncle is Robben Ford, a wonderful blues and jazz guitarist, songwriter and singer. Robben goes back a long way in the history of Little Feat. I had asked him to play acoustic guitar on a song of mine, “Gringo,” in 1980. Many years later, Paul and I worked with Robben on a Phil and Friends tour. Robben Ford is an exacting, articulate, and soulful musician.

Gabe Ford has been a drum tech for Richie Hayward the last two-and-a-half years. Following Little Feat’s 2009 Jamaican excursion, Gabe flew from Montego Bay to Boston to embark on a six- week tour with his uncle Robben. Howard Burke, our front of house engineer and consummate fisherman, attended one of the shows from that tour April, 2009, at the Mondavi Art Center at UC Davis. He heard Gabe play drums that night with Robben Ford, Ruthie Foster, and Jorma Kaukonen from Hot Tuna. Howard was mightily impressed with Gabe’s performance and told me so on one of those unending bus rides we endure when Feat is on tour.

(This conversation was certainly in the back of my mind when I mentioned Gabe Ford’s name to Paul a few months later.)

On one of Feat’s most recent tours, I asked Gabe if he would consider playing percussion with us on any shows he would like. No pressure, just sit in with us when and if the spirit moved him. I told him Sam was fine with the idea and so was Richie. He told me that he would prefer to make sure Richie and Sam were taken care of. I said that that was fine, that I respected his decision. He obviously took his job very seriously.

Gabe is a quiet person who plays his cards extremely close to the vest. His eyes convey another story, though. He has a lot going on upstairs, that much was evident to me in years we spent touring around the world. Still, I didn’t really know who he was, and I don’t think anybody in our band or crew did either. I was struck by the fact that when Howard Burke approached him to sit in for Richie he didn’t flinch. He was asked if he thought he could handle it and he said without reservation yes. Who was this person that was wary of playing percussion with us but would step into the hot seat of one of the best drummers on the planet?

The Ford family was recognized as a musical dynasty in the Bay area. Patrick, Robben and Mark Ford (Gabe’s father and two uncles) were in a band together, The Charles Ford Band, named after their father; Patrick on drums, Robben on guitar, Mark playing harmonica. Growing up in a musical family had some great advantages. Young Gabe attended birthday parties and other events at the homes of John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGee, and Charlie Musselwhite. His father would take him out of school sometimes, bringing him on gigs he was playing in the Bay area, allowing Gabe access to a world of live music, hanging back stage, and, in general, giving him an unvarnished look at what it was like to be a working musician. You can’t buy that kind of education.

His family encouraged Gabe to participate in the beginning by getting him to jump on stage with them and sing. His favorite song was “Flip Flop & Fly.” But on one of the shows his dad was playing with Charlie Musselwhite he wasn’t invited on stage to sing. He cried. His dad told him that it was Charlie’s band and he couldn’t make it happen. It was Gabe’s first taste of band politics.

At age nine or ten Gabe began taking lessons on the guitar, and a bit later on the piano. He wasn’t initially interested in following in his dad’s footsteps, but by age thirteen he finally gravitated to the drums, as there was always a kit set up in the house. Gabe told me that what really sold him was putting on headphones and playing along with his favorite artists and tunes. His studies in guitar and piano were based mostly on book learning, while playing drums was an immediate connection with music that inspired him. Simply put, it was a quick and easy way to immerse himself in the music. From there on his focus was on the drums, although he never abandoned playing guitar or piano. Around this time period a friend asked him to join a band, Razors Edge (originally called The Outlaws, but that name was already taken), a hard rock band. He and his friend began writing songs. In a sense, a great handshake was completed, but now the real work began.

Gabe felt he was becoming an accomplished musician and wanted to sit in with his dad’s band, this time playing drums. Patrick told him, “If you want to sit in with us you have to learn how to play a shuffle, and until you do it’s not going to happen.” He could not have given his son better advice as an aspiring drummer. Gabe told me his dad was a master at the double-shuffle. (The shuffle is probably one of the hardest beats to play for almost any drummer, and there are many, many ways to play a “shuffle” which compounds the problem of learning it.) “To this day, it is still one of the toughest grooves to play,” Gabe said.

Understanding nuance is critical to applying what you learn to the intellectual and physical act of playing drums, or any instrument for that matter. What Gabe was in the process of finding was his voice, the development of which is a life-long pursuit. It is intricately tied into how one “listens.”

He told me there are plenty of good drummers that are technically better than him but he learned early the art of listening and layering his “voice” with others, giving him a greater strength than someone who just shows his chops. It’s funny, because that’s how I felt the first time I heard Robben Ford play. It wasn’t that his chops were not incredible, they were, but he played from a place that reverberated not only in his head but, just as importantly, his heart.

Carving Out A Path

Gabe tried a brief stint in Los Angeles, but boomeranged back to northern California following the Rodney King Riots and the perverse custom of “pay to play” which was what almost every club owner shackled rising new bands with (they couldn’t draw anyone to hear them, so the club made them pay to play their club).

Upon arriving back home, he still played in bands, but he added another dimension to his life experience: he became a stagehand at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. He held this position for 14 years; for some years he was elevated to crew chief. He learned to deal with people of every stripe, day in and day out. He wound up not only playing the Fillmore 4 or 5 times, but also was able to go out on tour with his dad to play the Blue Rock’It Blues Revues in Europe and a couple of West Coast runs—he would play the first two sets, his dad would play the last two. He also had his own band, but that was proving not to be what he had hoped for. Too few dates, managers promising the moon and delivering less than anything that would make it worthwhile to keep the band intact. Working at the Fillmore had long ago stripped any sense of glamour from his idea of rock and roll and backstage life. At one point he took three drum lessons from Tony Williams, Miles Davis’ drummer, which proved to be both enlightening and intimidating. Music still held magic for him, but it wasn’t enough to provide a living.

He decided to take the deep dive into unknown waters. He quit his band, left the employ of the Fillmore, and struck out on his own, taking as many gigs as he could from whatever resources that were available to him including Craig’s List. He was auditioning every day for the scant work that was out there. (One of the reasons I went to Los Angeles in 1969 was I couldn’t find work in the Bay area either. Well, that and the Mother’s album, “Uncle Meat,” which prompted me to seek out Frank Zappa and, ultimately, Lowell George.)

Gabe also took another step. He made a solo record with the help of Robben and some other friends. Gabe performed guitar, Rhodes piano, drums, and vocals on this project entitled, “Gabe Ford.” He also took on a mix of odd jobs that would come his way, one of them from Cameron Sears and the Grateful Dead organization. He was hired to clean out the Dead’s locker. Around this time or shortly thereafter, Cameron Sears came on board the Little Feat ship, bringing John Scher, his partner, on the east coast, as well. Little Feat was now under management from the folks handling the Grateful Dead’s affairs. The swirling waters of fate were hard at work. Little Feat was in need of drum tech. Cameron said he had someone that could do the job, Gabe Ford.

We were very pleased to have Gabe join us. Here was a person who knew the drums, we were told, was compliant with Richie’s instructions to setup his kit a certain way, at which point Richie would take it from there making the minute adjustments. He had a very easygoing personality along with the air of someone that was used to getting a job done without fanfare. Gabe was immediately part of the Feat family.

I asked Gabe what it was like to observe Richie’s playing the last couple of years. He told me that there were just bits here and there that he felt he might be able to incorporate into his style. Richie is one of the most unique drummers in the world. That said, Richie and Gabe share a lot of the same influences: Elvin Jones, perhaps the most prominent, along with Miles Davis, Coltrane, Howling Wolf, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and on and on. Gabe told me that Richie’s drum parts were the thing that impressed him the most. Only Richie Hayward could have come up with the drum part for, “Hate To Lose.” (He used two snares, for example.) Richie plays in a free-form manner but with the element of orchestration. That orchestral quality was something Gabe was intensely aware of. He sat at the master’s feet, so to speak, for two-and-a-half years. Again, you couldn’t begin to buy that kind of education.

So We Find Ourselves Back At The Table Again

(Riding The Tail Of The Comet)

Lassoing the forces of chaos, fate, and serendipity are impossible, but we are bound to make the effort. These forces have become commonplace in Little Feat over many years (read the liner notes on Join The Band with explanation of Inara George’s rendition of Trouble, for example).  A decision had to be made as to whether or not Gabe Ford could sit in Richie’s chair, whether he could be a part of a band, not a sideman. The only way to answer it was to set up a rehearsal (I wouldn’t call it an audition) in Los Angeles sooner, much sooner, than later.  Gabe was already a member of the family. You don’t audition family members.

The anticipation for the three days of rehearsals at 3E (Third Encore) in the Valley was almost unbearable. No amount of talk, conjecture, hope or willing the situation to be reveal itself was going to substitute for the real deal. We would know in an instant, both Gabe and us, whether or not the ship would sail.

The day of reckoning finally arrived a couple of days after a one-off in Salt Lake City. The Valley was melting hot. Howard Burke arranged the set up of the gear with Doug Poulin, who followed his instructions to the letter. We were arranged in a semi-circle: drums at noon, bass at 2, guitars at 5 & 6, keyboards at 9 o’clock. The room was very quiet, almost solemn. Kenny had to go back to his house to retrieve something, so Paul, Fred, Gabe, and I went outside to talk in the heat.

I couldn’t wait any longer, I said why don’t we go in and run the song without the bass?

We checked the volume on our instruments and Paul started the opening lick to, “Hate To Lose.” Gabe nailed it. There was a palatable sense of relief after the song finished. It is not an easy drum part. It wasn’t the way Richie played it, but it was really good. Kenny came back, we played it again with a similar result. The rehearsal continued that day getting better and better. By the second day we were rehearsing arrangements that suited Gabe’s style (the instrumental ending to, “Just Another Sunday” was one of those songs). Smiles all around, we were off and running. By the third day, we cut the rehearsal short, running just a few tunes. The question was more than answered. Gabe had the musical vocabulary needed to play any and all songs we threw at him. Not easy considering you would have to play in quite a few bands to cover the material we routinely cover: Time Loves A Hero, Day or Night, Willing, Fat Man In the Bathtub, Let It Roll, Truck Stop Girl, High Roller, All That You Dream, Oh Atlanta, Red Streamliner, Old Folks Boogie, to name a few.

The die was cast. We would be playing our last show a week later with Richie in Billings, MT, and ten days later start a three-week tour with Gabe. The last question was about to be answered.

Live music is a like a wild animal. You never quite know what you’re going to be up against.

The venue was located in the friendly environs of the Narrows Center For The Arts, Fall River, MA. Sound check went off without a hitch. Later, one of Feat’s fans asked me how I thought it would go that night. I said, we’ll see, you never know. Judging on how Gabe performed at the rehearsals in L.A. and the sound check earlier I thought it would be a good night. But live performance is just that, it’s live. No way to tell how a person’s nerves might affect how they play, the reaction of the audience, the sound of the room, the accuracy of the monitors, and many other factors. The weight wasn’t just on Gabe Ford, it was on all of us.

Paul made a great call, and a gutsy one, beginning the set with Fat Man. If this didn’t answer where and how this was going to play out, nothing would. There are all kinds of twists and turns in that song, complete with tempo changes, a new section we had put in at rehearsals, references to other songs (“Gringo,” Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up,” and a very brief tip of the hat to the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias”), a bass solo, and lastly, a drum solo. No prisoners. The opening beat told the story, Gabe was in precision mode: strong, purposeful, and loose. It was a wonderful way to start the evening, the tour, the next chapter.

Our thoughts were very much with Richie that night, as well. Prayers and hope that he could rejoin us reflected the attitude of everyone (band, crew, friends and fans) connected to this family. We had, so far, negotiated riding the tail of the comet.

Bill Payne

Backstage in Westbury, NY