by Whit Hill
One of the last dances I ever choreographed was a trio for women about Queen Elizabeth I and her lifelong love for Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. I wanted it to be both sad and timeless. So, rather than using some English pavane from the 1500s, I picked "Come Back Baby" a blues by Eric Bibb and it was perfect.
This slow-burn singer and guitar player was born in New York City and raised in a household that was rich in music. His dad, Leon Bibb, also a singer, was deep into the 1960s New York folk scene, and hosted a variety television show on NBC New York. Eric's godfather was Paul Robeson. He first picked up a guitar at seven, and as a kid he made his way down to Greenwich Village every chance he got to see heroes like Richie Havens, Odetta, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Joni Mitchell. In 1969, fresh out of the High School for Music and Art, Bibb headed to Europe; he's lived in Sweden for much of his adult life, but really the world is his home. A hypnotic solo performer, Bibb tours constantly he fits in easily at jazz, blues, folk, and world music festivals, and heaven knows there are plenty of those around to keep him busy.
Bibb's 2000 album Home to Me (EarthBeat! Records) shows the breadth of his playing and writing: some straight-ahead blues, some more folk-pop approaches, and a rollicking paean to Nelson Mandela. Me, I like the stripped-down stuff best, though Sam Cooke's classic "Bring It On Home to Me" gets a sweet treatment from Bibb and an ace band that leaves plenty of space for the song.
His latest record, out last year, is called, quite simply, Friends, and it shows what kind of magic can be cooked up when you tour a lot and virtually everyone playing music is your best friend. Each of the fifteen tracks features Bibb
in deep, complex collaboration with some pretty impressive luminaries: Guy Davis, Martin Simpson, Taj Mahal, Harry Manx, Charlie Musselwhite, Odetta, Mamadou Diabate, Ruthie Foster, and lots more. Track 3, St. Louis Jimmy's "Goin' Down Slow," satisfies my infrequently satisfied jones for blues fiddle, courtesy of Michael Jerome Browne. Harry Manx's mohan veena (Indian lap-style guitar) takes the traditional "Needed Time" to someplace far away. How cool to hear Bibb and Odetta, the grande dame of folk music, singing so sweetly together in "'Tain't Such a Much." (If Odetta's not your own personal legend, then you should check your legend list.)
Friends is really a terrific album so many different sounds bound together by Bibb's voice and careful, artful production. When he plays the Ark on Thursday, February 16, it'll be just Eric, his husky voice, and his wide-brimmed hat. And maybe the ghosts of the Virgin Queen and her boyfriend, united at last, digging the blues.
[Review published February 2006]