Photograph by Adams
Mixmaster at Mic: Eric Bibb's unmistakable sound blends elements of blues, African American roots music and spirituals. He plays Kuumbwa this Friday.
W.C. Handy Award nominee Eric Bibb brings his genre-busting blend of blues and roots music to the Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz.
By Andrew Gilbert
The blues and spirituals are kissing cousins, musical forms that emerged around the same time from the same place. But few artists make the deep connections between the styles as obvious as folk/blues troubadour Eric Bibb, who has been deeply touched by the power of African American music to heal and sustain the soul.
Over the last decade, Bibb, a nominee for the W.C. Handy Blues award, the genre's highest honor, has released a series of albums featuring original tunes that draw equally on sacred and profane impulses, often blending Saturday night revelry with Sunday morning witnessing. His rooted sensibility finds perfect expression on A Ship Called Love, an unabashedly sanctified session featuring his smooth baritone and deft acoustic guitar work. While the songs are all Bibb's, his music flows from his deep love of early-20th-century folk styles, when music was a potent force for maintaining solidarity in black communities. "The music was first and foremost sustenance," says Bibb, 56, from London, where he's lived for the past five years. "It was also entertainment, but primarily it started out as a way for people to stay in touch with their divine roots and overcome incredibly difficult situations."
The son of folk singer and activist Leon Bibb, Eric was raised in a home suffused with music and politics. His uncle was the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet pianist/composer John Lewis; Paul Robeson, the Broadway star, actor and outspoken socialist, was his godfather (Leon and Eric recorded a heartfelt tribute to Robeson in 2006 titled Praising Peace). Throughout his childhood, the Bibb household regularly hosted artists deeply involved in leftist politics. Guests included Pete Seeger, Odetta and Harry Belafonte.
"I was exposed to great music of the World War II era," Bibb says. "I saw Son House live at Newport when I was 14, and it imprinted really deeply. I recognized the real deal. My dad was passing through a lot of wonderful musicians and music, and introduced me to players like the Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. My dad was in the midst of a very ambitious cadre of musicians who were taking folk music to the popular field, whether Belafonte or Odetta. At the same time I was listening to Lead Belly and Bill Broonzy, I was listening to AM radio, to the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Motown, Stax. All of that made a big impact on me."
Feeding his teenage musical obsession, Bibb would feign illness to stay home from school so he could listen to records by folk greats like the New Lost City Ramblers, Josh White and Joan Baez. At 16, his father recruited him to play guitar in the house band for his popular TV talent show Someone New. After a brief stint at Columbia University, Bibb lit out for Paris in the early 1970s, where he woodshedded to develop his blues chops. Later he moved to Sweden, becoming a key participant in Stockholm's vibrant music scene while continuing his ardent study of Delta blues and other pre-war styles. In explaining his wide-ranging influences, Bibb mentions Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta, a book with revisionist view of the role of the blues in black music. Rather than being the Delta's dominant style, Wald argues that the blues was just one part of an extensive body of tunes necessary for traveling musicians to master. Bibb's sound hearkens back to an era before the record business started slotting musicians into specific niches. His own experience in the folk revival gave him a taste of music's free-flowing currents. "I grew up in an era when there was a degree of flexibility, when folk music could be everything from Lead Belly to singers from the Georgia Sea Islands to Dave Van Ronk and later Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens, and you could see them all on the same stage," Bibb says. "Music has always been a world where people traveled freely across geographical and cultural boundaries with ease. It's only when you meet the marketplace that you start to see these artificial separations."
Bibb demonstrated his gift for reaching across genres on Friends, his superb 2004 Telarc album featuring a parade of special guests including fellow troubadour Taj Mahal, Malian guitar legend Djelimady Tounkara, Hawaiian slack key guitar master Led Ka'apana and Mali-born kora virtuoso Mamadou Diabate. The same year, he joined forces with Marin-based vocalist Maria Muldaur and fellow guitarist and belter Rory Block on Sisters & Brothers, another session designed to lift the spirit. His latest release, Diamond Days, garnered him a Blues Foundation nomination for Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year. Known as the Handys, after blues patriarch W.C. Handy, the awards will be handed out at the 29th Blues Music Awards in Tunica, Miss., on May 8.
Diamond Days captures his singular gift for channeling the spirit. From a rollicking call to brotherhood on a live version of "In My Father's House" and an intimate rendition of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" to "Still Livin' On," his original hat tip to departed legends like Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton and Pops Staples, Bibb delivers his music like a man offering cold glasses of water to a parched congregation. One needn't be in dire straits to appreciate it, but its power stems from Bibb's recognition that music can affirm a people's humanity in the face of the most daunting trials. "Much of the music that had an impact on me was created by people who were having a hard time," Bibb says, noting the emotional currents upon which his music draws. "It's the whole African American story, where music is a spiritual tool for a traumatized group of people trying to survive."
ERIC BIBB performs Friday, March 21, at 7:30pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 adv/$25 door; 831.479.9421 or www.snazzyproductions.com.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.