Considered and insightful thoughts on the state of his nation, by the master of folk-blues, Eric Bibb, managing to counter the sometime bleakness of vision by embracing a number of styles.
Release Date: 10th September 2021
Formats: Vinyl, CD, Digital
How can Eric Bibb really be 69 years old? It seems hard to believe, his unlined visage seemingly unchanged over the years, permanently crowned by a range of elegant titfers, producing his effortless brand and blend of folk with the blues, or is it blues with folk, for clearly much longer than I appreciated. Familiar only with the name previously, he first fell into my awareness as part of the Transatlantic Sessions 2013 tour, a change from their resolutely caucasian line-up, wherein he ably demonstrated how too the history of black American music owed some debt to the celtic diaspora arriving across the Atlantic, by choice or, often, otherwise.
That performance led me back to his own catalogue, where he has become and remained a dignified ambassador for his roots and his music, with a back catalogue stretching back to 1972. Fiercely literate, he has never been a strident voice, more a naggingly persistent voice of reason. And this record, a “love letter” to his country, is very much that of a critical friend, embracing the warts with the wonder, the faults with his faith in it. In no small irony, his observations are all the more acute, his forensic attention to detail enhanced by geographical distance. He has been resident of Scandinavia, Finland then Sweden, for a decade. So a love letter? He goes on: “because all of America’s woes, and the woes of the world, can only come into some kind of healing and balance with that energy we call love.”
The album is not all political, but much of it is, deeply so. And, should you questions his credentials, especially if in self-imposed exile, figure in that his godfather was no less than Paul Robeson, that celebrated singer: Ol’ Man River, making black lives matter back in the 50s, along with Leon, Eric’s dad, in the nascent civil rights movements of the 1940’s and 50s.
Opening track, Whole Lotta Lovin, is a gentle song that spells out his recipe of how modern American music came together. With glorious double bass, courtesy of Ron Carter, it is little else more than his guitar and the warm cocoon of his voice, some backing vocals creeping in toward the end. In some hands, this sort of song can seem trite, but here this is anything but, oozing with a believable and likeable charm. You are immediately on side, this a necessary step, as the following song, Born Of A Woman, changes tack dramatically, being a stark narrative about domestic violence and the blind eyes of the authorities. Featuring Shaneeka Simon on duet vocals, it combines mastery of the arrangement and the chilling indictment of the lyrics.
Whole World’s Got The Blues upends the whole “woke up this morning” cliche and places it in a context that suggests the title may well be right. Featuring Eric Gales on a searing electric guitar, this pulls no punches, sonically or lyrically, waking you right up, if you weren’t already. The drums? Steve Jordan. By contrast, the title track is a more typical country blues holler, even if it opens with a quote from Martin Luther King, ahead of a moaning Bibb, questioning what can possibly be done, decrying the selfsame issues his father and godfather were supposed to have been addressing all those years ago. Did I earlier say critical friend? Ouch.
Different Picture fails to lift any mood, the relentlessly bleak narrative at risk of dragging you down, were it not for the righteous, sacred steel guitar of Chuck Campbell, of the Campbell Brothers, that reveals, if you listen closely, that this a song of hope. It may sound a litany of hopelessness but listen to the message. And the wonderful pedal steel. The fingerpicked ‘Tell Yourself’ further adds to that feeling, Bibb’s own guitar here a delight.
Emmett’s Ghost revisits the same personage and the same story as does Bob Dylan’s ‘Death of Emmett Till’, and is a good companion piece, a story song based on the grisly historical fact, that bowls along, underpinned again by Carter’s sublime bass, until the sudden pin drop ending. When White And Black follows, somehow, for all the beauty of the vocal, it is perhaps too simplistic a paean, gospel choir and all, to the colour divide, trying to answer the impossible all-important why. But, who am I to speak, on the other side of the ocean and at another spectrum of privilege? (Having said that, it is a whole lot more realistic than risible earlier attempts like the McCartney/Wonder travesty of Ebony And Ivory).
Along The Way is another finger-picked delight, a plea to do your best and take your time, and is one of my favourites, and proves a lever out of the darkening clouds that cover much of the album thus far, a lever into the paired Talkin’ Bout A Train, Parts 1 and 2, simpler fare both, choogling blues apiece. The essential harmonica sound effects are provided by Chicago harpman Billy Branch for Part 1. If this is Woody Guthrie dustbowl music, Part 2 is altogether more funky, with brass and a swirly organ, a gospel train to Glory.
Picking up on this funkier mood, a similar full band shifts lively into Love’s Kingdom, which features effervescent and bubbly bass from Tommy Sims, erstwhile Springsteen and Clapton alumnus, and Glen ScoP, and I’m guessing here, as google no help to the who he is, on the shared vocal lines. Bibb sounds relaxed in this style, away from his more familiar acoustic mode to which he returns, for the stellar closing ballad, One-ness Of Love which has the deeply soulful tones of Lisa Mills, trading lines with Bibb in a love song of devotion. A string quartet and piano provide additional backing, a song in the melodic vein of, and as good as, Solomon Burke’s rendition of Dan Penn’s Don’t Give Up On Me. A terrific song with which to end a terrific recording.