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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1249

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Eric Bibb: Painting Signs
by George Graham

(EarthBeat Records 74382 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/8/2001)

While the great majority of the blues being released on record these days is of the electric variety, mostly in the Chicago tradition, the acoustic blues scene has become remarkably healthy. Some outstanding players have been gaining increasing prominence, most notably Keb' Mo', whose music definitely extends beyond the traditional, along with Corey Harris, the duo of Cephas & Wiggins and Kelly Joe Phelps. Even Eric Clapton and B.B. King did an acoustic track on their joint album last year. Another artist specializing in non-amplified blues is Eric Bibb, who has just released his sixth or seventh CD called Painting Signs.

Acoustic blues, of course, was the original form of the music, arising from African-American performers from the rural South, eventually being popularized by artists like Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. Since the 1950s, for the most part, it is the electric blues that has been the music of those performers who "lived the blues" so to speak, while acoustic blues, interestingly, is increasingly being taken up by more schooled musicians. Corey Harris, for example, has a graduate degree and taught school before launching his career. Kelly Joe Phelps played in jazz groups. Eric Bibb comes from a worthy pedigree -- his father, Leon Bibb, has had a career in both folk music and the theater since the 1960s, his uncle was the late jazz great John Lewis, founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and his godfather was the late Paul Robeson. The 50-year-old Eric Bibb says his Epiphany on the acoustic blues came in 1996 when in Europe, where he was living, he shared a stage with Corey Harris and Keb' Mo.' Since then, he has been concentrating on mainly acoustic blues from his home base in Sweden, releasing a series of critically acclaimed albums. But another of his great influences is African-American Gospel, and he has been combining them in a distinctive way, harkening back to the Rev. Gary Davis. Bibb's songs generally have a much more positive lyrical tone than most blues, and his rich, generally laid-back vocals are a nice match.

Bibb's latest, Painting Signs is a somewhat more band-oriented and electric recording that his previous CDs, though it's hardly Chicago style blues. He made Painting Signs mostly in England and was joined by some notable musicians who go back to the 1960s British blues days, including bassist Dave Bronze, who worked with members of Deep Purple, guitarist Robbie McIntosh formerly of Paul McCartney's Wings and the Pretenders, and drummer Henry Spinetti, who worked in Eric Clapton's band. Bibb is also joined by some of the Swedish players who worked with him in the past, including keyboard man Janne Petersson. This CD is also somewhat more "produced" than his almost stark earlier recordings -- his Spirit and the Blues was recorded live in the studio around a single pair of microphones. But Painting Signs is still a nicely understated album, with a lot of tasteful playing, and a decidedly intimate sound, with percussion being small-scale and acoustic guitar usually dominating. But he also makes a couple of forays into 60s style soul.

Though Bibb does some traditional material, he considers himself as much a songwriter as anything else, and on this CD eight of the thirteen songs are originals. The cover material comes from an interesting variety of sources, from the Rev. Gary Davis to Jimi Hendrix. Bassist Dave Bronze also contributes a composition.

The album begins with one of its sadder songs, Kokomo is an elegy for a lost friend, done in a kind of rural blues setting with acoustic instruments and an accordion. <<>>

One of the soul-styled tracks on the CD is an old song called Hope in a Hopeless World co-written by legendary record producer Bob Thiele. Bibb shows his Marvin Gaye influence with a nice performance of the piece aided by the backing vocals of Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir. <<>>

The Reverend Gary Davis tune that Bibb includes is I Heard the Angels Singing, which exemplifies Bibb's penchant for combining blues and Gospel. Bibb's plaintive vocal is especially memorable on this piece. <<>>

One of the musically attractive tracks on the album has perhaps the saddest lyrics. Delia's Gone is the story of a woman shot by her man, and Bibb delivers the song in a quiet, contemplative manner, making it more powerful. <<>>

Perhaps the most surprising track on the CD is Bibb's version of Jimi Hendrix' Angel, on which is joined only by Janne Petersson's piano. Bibb turns it into a nice ballad that manages to stay just this side of lounge style. <<>>

If there is a track that does go over the line into the area of un-blues-like sentimentality, it's The Light Was Worth the Candle. The song could work in a Nashville country setting, though its message is quite positive. <<>>

Also in the positive message department is a original composition that might have been considered a protest song in days of yore. Got to Do Better is an energetic blues, gospel and funk exposition of the Golden Rule, and how actually following it would help make the world a better place. <<>>

The title track Painting Signs is performed mostly solo, and is a clever set of lyrics weaving commonly seen signs into a set of bluesy laments. <<>>

The album ends with a live performance of an original song called Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down which ties into the positive Gospel blues direction Bibb often takes. On this piece, he is joined by soul legend Wilson Pickett for an appropriately spirited performance. <<>>

Eric Bibb, over the last two or three years has been establishing a reputation as one of the bright lights on the acoustic blues scene. His impressive musical pedigree has not hurt his understanding of the influences that go into his music -- rural blues and Gospel especially. His new CD Painting Signs is more wide-ranging stylistically than his previous efforts, spanning soul and a couple of ballads. But it's all very tastefully done, and even when the arrangements go electric, there is always a kind of down-home acoustic undercurrent to his music, and his vocals are always first-rate. The supporting cast of veteran British blues players also adds to the strength of this CD.

We'll give this recording an "A" for sound quality. While not with the kind of audiophile minimalist studio sound of his early releases, Painting Signs has a pleasing, open, warm sound, with a respectable dynamic range, and care in avoiding unneeded electronic effects. The only minor shortfall is that stereo separation is a bit on the stingy side, reducing the three-dimensional quality of the recording.

Eric Bibb's music has evolved into a nice combination of eclecticism and authenticity. His roots remain in acoustic blues, but he expands his reach this time around, and does it quite successfully.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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