Vancouver native Frazey Ford’s sold out performance this past Thursday night at NAC’s Fourth Stage showcased some of the best sound quality experiences ever captured in that room. She boarded the stage to an already exuberantly welcoming crowd, accompanied by a team of 5 musicians which included opener/special guest Phil Cook who added some sweet tones on the resident grand piano. Decked out in a hip-hugging blood red velour catsuit, she took her place front and center, armed with her acoustic guitar, and a glass of red wine by her side. Together, they led us on a generous string of 18 songs from Ford’s two solo albums, Obadiah (2010), and Indian Ocean (2014), both recorded under the Nettwerk label.
Filled with emotional, soul-searching themes, her songs covered the board in a genre-hopping array of folk, gospel, R&B, soul, funk, and pop. Each song breathed in and out of soft/strong textures, varying tempos, off-the-beaten-track melodies, and rich instrumentation. But the focal point for me, was Ford’s one-of-a-kind voice, which grabbed me in its chameleon-like range between sweetness and strength, its Emmylou Harris quality, rounded vowel accents, and perfect, delicate vibrato which lent a sense of urgency and emotion to her music.
Beginning with the strong gospel tones of “You’re Not Free”, accompanying vocal harmonies by bassist, Darren Parris, and the perfectly-matched timbres of accomplished vocalist, Caroline Ballhorn, added a breathtaking dimension, and were prevalent in much of the material. Later, Ford spoke to the audience about her latest album, “Indian Ocean”, and of her surreal experience in recording and collaborating with the Hodges brothers of Al Green’s Hi Rhythm Section at the historic Royal Studios. The entire album is deliciously wrapped in their golden Memphis tones of tightly-knitted organ, bass, and guitar.
“The first time I heard Al Green, I was about 20, and I’ve always felt that was one of the most incredible bands in the world… and still do. It was an unforgettable experience to work with the Hodges brothers. They had such amazing stories, treated us like family, and were really excited about the project. The fact that they’re brothers means they have this chemistry that’s almost psychic. They play together in a way that I’ve never seen before. And that studio… it’s full of memorabilia like the crate they stomped out “Love and Happiness” on. I sang through the same microphone Ann Peebles used… I was so blown away to be able to do that.”
I also loved the very catchy, funk/R&B feel of “Blue Streak Mama”, which was sung in perfect unison with Ballhorn, who even with eyes closed, lost in the groove, knew where to put every vocal nook and cranny. “Done”, featured in her latest video, had a great walking beat, pop/soul flavour, and conveyed more of her recurring themes of confidence and self-empowerment. The video highlights Ford in various outdoor scenes and wardrobe changes, all of which are flashy, tight-fitting outfits that gloriously showcase her voluptuous curves, which has delightfully become her trademark in her live shows.
“I love clothing, and I was lucky that my mom, who has a similar body type, was always very confident with her body… probably because she grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood where our type of figure is really appreciated. Lately, there’s this great movement happening with all kinds of curvy women who just have these natural, feminine bodies. I find it very empowering to see these images of women just simply looking beautiful and confident, wearing whatever the hell they want. Feeling good in your own body sends a message to other women that it’s okay for them to feel that way too. I love that I’m able to do that through the video. It sucks that we have that kind of culture that’s so body-shaming and so body-hating, and I’m glad that we’re seeing a big change right now.”
The set ended with a rendition of Funkadelic’s, “Can You Get To That”, a song Ford has carried with her since her early days with funk band, “Fluid”. It exhibited her crisp, full-flavoured R&B vocals, some great lead work by guitarist, Craig McCaul, and some impressive percussion by drummer, Leon Power, who despite sporting a cast on his left arm, managed to hold down the groove all night with his right.
After a rousing standing ovation, Ford and her crew returned to the stage where they proceeded with her very first single, “Firecracker”. It’s haunting melody has drawn me in since the very first time I heard it, and has become my favourite of hers. Tonight, she dedicated the song to her brother, who she stated with pride, successfully won his battle with addiction. The last song in the slot was saved for the title track to “Indian Ocean”, which she wrote while on a trip to Bali with her son.
“That was a time I got into meditation and was dealing with some major losses in my life. I found Bali to be very soothing, and in some ways, to be so far away from what was familiar to me. There was something so sensual, beautiful, and spiritual about that place that influenced my writing. And the ocean provided that metaphor of letting difficult things wash away. It seemed to define the feeling of what was coming through on that album.”
Another standing ovation, and a room full of people who didn’t want to let her go. I was left to relish in the lingering positive vibes of a woman, whose songs are the by-product of her journey through the transitions of her life, and her gift to the world.