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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1338

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Eric Bibb: Natural Light
by George Graham

(Earthbeat Records R2 73830 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 09/17/2003)

Two Thousand and Three has been designated the Year of the Blues by an act of Congress, and the year has seen some worthwhile music in the genre, from traditional acoustic to electric. This week, we have a new recording from a talented artist who has been spanning various facets of the blues throughout his recording career. He is also interesting in that, though American-born, he spends most of his time in Europe, and has made most of his recordings there. He is Eric Bibb, and his new CD is called Natural Light.

Eric Bibb was born into music. The son of Leon Bibb, a folk and blues singer who was prominent part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960s, the nephew of the late John Lewis, the pianist and founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the godson of the pioneering singer Paul Robeson, Eric Bibb was surrounded by music, growing up with Odetta, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez as family friends. Bibb ended up settling in Sweden during the 1970s, apparently finding the musical atmosphere there better. He returned to New York for five years in the 1980s, but feeling that the environment that spawned the 1960s folk scene was no longer there, he moved back to Sweden. And his first few US CDs, released during the late 1990s, were recorded in Sweden, though you would never be able to tell it from listening. Bibb specializes in acoustic blues, in the Piedmont tradition, but has been incorporating more electric instrumentaiton recently. His new release, Natural Light features a regular band, and some electric guitar, but the underlying sound remains acoustic.

Bibb is also a notable songwriter, with most of the music on his CDs being original, in a field where playing blues standards is the rule.

After recording in Sweden, Bibb made his new CD in England, where he enlisted some venerable performers, some of whom who go back to the British rock scene of the 1960s, including producer and bassist Dave Bronze, who played with Robin Trower and Richie Blackmore among others. The drummer most of the time is Henry Spinetti, another veteran who has recorded with Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Bill Wyman. Also appearing is guitarist Robbie MacIntosh, of the Pretenders, and who also toured with Paul McCartney. But some of Bibb's Swedish cohorts remain with him, including keyboardist Janne Petersson.

Bibb takes pride in his musical eclectism, enjoying drawing on influences from acoustic Piedmont blues to jazz ballads to hints of Zydeco. While the bulk of the music is original, he does include two songs of very different sources that he covers -- a Randy Newman piece, and a tune originally recorded by soul singer Jackie Wilson. On the original pieces, Bibb tends to avoid the usual blues subjects of infidelity and lost loves, and instead mainly creates songs that seem more positive in message, in keeping with his earlier spiritual-and-blues mixtures. He even includes a song whose lyrics are an apology, which is about as far from a typical blues song as one can get. The result is enjoyable music that while never far from the blues, does cover a fair amount of ground. Many may find some parallels with another contemporary bluesman, Keb' Mo'.

In addition to Bronze, Spinetti and Petersson, the CD also includes a guest appearance by Chicago blues guitar great Hubert Sumlin, who puts in a cameo guitar solo on one track.

Leading off is one of the of CD's most appealing tracks lyrically, So Much Stuff, co-written by Bibb and Bronze. The story, of one's life being governed by the pursuit of material wealth, has been told before, but Bibb's take is particularly well-done, both musically and lyrically. The soul-influenced arrangement with horns is supplemented by the Hubert Sumlin's guitar solo. <<>>

The jazzy side of the CD is represented on the track Home Lovin' Man. The ballad takes up the theme of the blues in one way -- seeking better times -- but in another, it's unlike the blues, with the protagonist not being exactly your typical blues-song two-timer. <<>>

Even further off the blues' lyrical territory is So Sorry, a laid-back pop ballad of mea culpa. <<>>

Blues great B.B. King is paid a tribute in the song Tell Riley, with Riley being B.B. King's given first name. The setting is acoustic Delta, and nicely done. <<>>

More reminiscent of Bibb's earlier, more intimate recordings, is Champagne Habits, performed in a solo setting. Again, the lyrics are an admonishment to improve, rather than a lamentation of the way things are. <<>>

Bibb's cover of Randy Newman's song Every Time It Rains is given a respectable reading, though it is not the highlight of the album, and not blues by any stretch. <<>>

Another song of with a positive message is Water Works Fine, which extols the pleasures of sobriety. <<>>

About the closest thing to the lyrical lamentation typical of a blues song is Circles, performed in an intimate folky guitar and piano setting. It's a highlight of the CD. <<>>

Bibb's influence by spirituals and African-American Gospel is highlighted on the closing track Higher and Higher, first recorded by Jackie Wilson,. Bibb and Company give the tune an upbeat treatment with the added twist of a Zydeco-styled accordion played by a Swede, Janne Petersson. <<>>

Eric Bibb came somewhat late to acoustic blues. It was in the mid-1990s that he shared a stage with Corey Harris and Keb' Mo' and was immediately taken by their music. In the nearly half-dozen albums since, the 52-year-old, European-based Bibb has made some memorable music that combines first-rate contemporary writing with a sense of the history of the music. His new CD continues that appealing combination of eclectic but tasteful musicianship, Bibb's pleasing baritone vocals, lyrics that are much more positive than typical for blues, and largely acoustic instrumentation. Working with British and Swedish musicians, Bibb creates a recording that draws deeply from American roots.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The mix has everything in the right proportion, and the acoustic instrumentation and arrangements are respectable. The dynamic range is also reasonable by contemporary standards.

In many people's minds, the blues is what is played by an electric band, singing about lovers who walked out or generally being down and out. Eric Bibb combines a generally positive lyrical message with mostly acoustic instrumentation to make another fine album that will likely stand the test of time and many a repeated listening.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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