Marc Ford & Kareeta Bring Sweets Sounds To Santa Cruz

Longtime JamBase contributor Dennis Cook recaps a memorable Sunday night in Santa Cruz.

By Dennis Cook Sep 22, 2023 8:11 am PDT

Quiet Sunday nights are a part of working touring musician life. The show must go on even if the audience only slightly outnumbers the assembled players. How bands handle this situation tells one a lot about their character and why they wrestle with clubland’s vagabond life. The musicians that step up with a smile and put their backs into it are the real deal with palpable passion, dedication to creating music in the moment, and an understanding that something inexplicable yet essential occurs when songs are played for strangers in dimly lit rooms.

This past Sunday, Marc Ford (Black Crowes, Magpie Salute, Ben Harper) and his freshly minted trio, with openers Southern California rock outfit Kareeta, visited Santa Cruz’s long running roadhouse Moe’s Alley and offered up a few hours of some of the best contemporary, classic-minded rock happening, their joy in what they do permeating every note and sincere thank you. The sense that every dude onstage digs making this music, working over these tunes, was inescapable and more than a little charming throughout both bands’ sets filled with grinning energy, thoughtful setlists, and spirited interplay.

To borrow a line from Dolly Varden, there were “not too many but enough” of us at Moe’s Alley to create a warm, engaged atmosphere conducive to creativity poured through cranked amps. The previous night’s gig in Marin had been a sold-out affair for this simpatico pairing but I’m certain they performed both shows with equal vigor. Any concert veteran knows insincerity and half-assing when they experience it and there wasn’t a whiff of either at Moe’s. Instead, what unfolded drew one closer, ringing strings and swinging rhythms encouraging us to set down our phones, quit chatting, and tune into the rollicking right now – rock ‘n’ roll that seduces rather than demands attention.

Kareeta started the proceedings and quickly snapped the crowd to attention. A few minutes into their first song I knew I would be a big fan going forward. It’s a gut level jolt I’ve experienced only a few times seeing The Hold Steady, Clutch, and the Drive-By Truckers for the first time. Kareeta creates a similar sort of rock that sinks its teeth into your hide fast and sure and doesn’t let loose until the thank you and goodnight.

Kareeta proffers a heady mixture of Southern rock heaviness marbled by California sunset vibes, the ocean and meandering highways of the Golden State imparting not mellowness but varied, bold hues, the whole shebang moving with hips that swivel and weave through the backyards of big money mansions and crowded city boulevards, keeping things a touch freaky while the fast cars chase paper and fame and Kareeta cruises with the street people, surfers, and congenial grifters.

The band is touring behind their sophomore album, Freeway Junkie Queen (released July 7 on Karma Rocket Records), a quintessential grower where after just a few spins you’ll be happily lost within their chooglin’ travelogues, singing all the back up vocals, and stomping a beat into the floorboards. Like their winning 2021 self-titled debut, Freeway Junkie Queen was produced by The Mother Hips’ Greg Loiacono. Recorded at Dave Schools’ Northern California Spacecamp Studio, FJQ features a very in-the-pocket Schools on bass throughout the entire album. Loiacono and the gang leave some grit and grease in the gears, keeping the sound just the right amount of dirty in this over-polished sonic age. Their evolving vibe recalls Blackberry Smoke, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, Slobberbone, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, The Jayhawks, and the aforementioned Drive-By Truckers – a rootsy, blues and country splashed American rock casserole that like all great home cooking has its own distinctive flavor despite recalling past dishes.

Live, both the band and their catalog vibrate with muscle and hunger, the music evolving in real time, the tail sections stretching out as the band pushed and pulled onstage, instinct guiding solos as lead singer Chuck Harris swayed against the mic stand like a boogie barometer rising and falling to the unpredictable, exceedingly satisfying guitar sketching of Jon Siembieda and Aaron Barnes while drummer Brian Lara and bassist Chuck Gonzalez made the whole enterprise wriggle and bop.

Kareeta is a treat to watch as the music emerges from their bodies, each guy fun to study in the moment as their collective effort gains momentum and heft, Harris’ distinct, oddly curved but beautifully musical twang riding the wave.

Every live version of an album cut showed how the road work and continued tinkering are paying off, and brand new tune “Demon” delivered a Wall of Southern Sound akin to Dead Confederate and what some of the Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 Collective are laying down.

A rousing cover of DBT’s “Lookout Mountain” was a cosmically poetic closer right down to a Truckers-like three guitar assault with a guest shredder friend from Mammoth joining them. Before they launched, Harris remarked, “It’s gonna get heavy for a few but it’s only five or six minutes.”

With the closing notes still ringing in my ears, I felt confident I’d discovered my favorite new rock band.

Before Marc Ford’s headlining set, it dawned on me that I’ve been following his work since Burning Tree in 1990 even before he joined his best known gig, lead guitarist in The Black Crowes (1992-1997, 2005-2006). I’ve avidly followed Ford through his extensive solo work, short lived projects like Blue Floyd & Federale, and his stint in Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals. Not only is Ford one of the finest, most naturally gifted guitarists of his generation, he also has strong instincts for projects with musical potential even if many fade out too soon.

I offer this overarching perspective to bolster what I’m about to say:

I have never seen Marc Ford happier, looser, and more gregariously playful than this Sunday evening in Santa Cruz.

Ford’s powerhouse guitar and vocals are joined by pro’s pros drummer Phil Jones (Tom Petty, Pegi Young, Cracker, Bob Dylan, many more) and bassist Jim Wilson (Daniel Lanois, Sparks, Rollins Band, many more) in this new trio, which has played maybe 20 shows Ford told me after this performance.

It’s a lean but full sound where every element dovetails and contributes, and — in this long-term Ford fan’s opinion — is the best setting yet for showcasing what an all-around gifted singer-songwriter-guitarist Marc Ford is. There are echoes of OG trio Gov’t Mule and early Grand Funk Railroad but at its core Ford’s trio is modern blues rock that pulls as much from Neil Young & Crazy Horse as it does from John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy.

While things got thick ‘n’ heavy at times, the diverse solo catalog Ford has crafted since the early 2000s kept the mood cohesive yet gently shifting, a steady reminder that Ford has quietly carved his own musical identity over the course of over nine quality albums. Add to this his singing sounding the best I’ve ever heard plus the empathetic playing of Jones and Wilson, and one came away with a clear picture of Marc Ford the artist separate from his more famous collaborations.

Much of the setlist revolved around rugged tales delivered with weary, worldly understanding, Ford’s experiences imparting the hard earned knowledge that all the glitters ain’t gold and even if it is maybe it’s not really worth grabbing at shiny objects.

On my pick for set highlight “The Vulture,” the finest Crazy Horse song not written by Neil, Ford offered up this rugged observation with a steely gaze and hard, hushed voice that spoke volumes:

“You got a head full of diamonds and a nose full of snow / You leave a trail of destruction everywhere that you go / You’re never in a hurry / Shows you lack control / You got a shrug of the shoulder for all that you stole.”

Cutting verses, to say the least, but Ford turns it on its head in that modern sorta blues way I spoke of, offering in the next breath:

“I hate you when I’m with you / I miss you when I’m gone / Who’s gonna tell your story? / Who’s gonna sing your song? / Who’ll keep an eye on the vulture if he stays too long?”

Much of Ford’s solo writing is reflective and unsparing, to himself most of all. There is so much living, good and bad, in his music and the full spectrum of what this hard-lived veteran has within him was on display. Pared down to the essentials of guitar, voice, bass and drums, Ford stood bravely exposed.

By not relying on pleasure button blues standards or the easy audience hit of the Crowes catalog, Ford is presenting himself, warts and all, and one left Moe’s Alley wondering if this is might be the opening chapter to his finest hour yet.

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