Eric Bibb delivers an album of down-home country blues. Anyone looking for some kind of raw, primal exorcism of passion a la Elmore James or Buddy Guy can look elsewhere. This is a much more stripped-down version of the genre, more akin to the delta blues, with the most obvious point of reference being the laid-back yet intense folk-stylings of Mississippi John Hurt. Bibb takes several cues from Hurt, particularly in the gentleness of his voice and in the way he occasionally replicates Hurt’s signature intricate comping.
Bibb creates a synthesis of various strains of folk, blues, country, and traditional music that serves his talents well, with most of the song going a little more in one direction without straying too far from the other styles. For instance, “Dig a Little in the Well” is distinctly a country song, with the bass landing explicitly on the upbeat, the banjo strumming in the background, harmonized vocals on the chorus, and the fiddle filling in with double-stops and taking a few short solos. This wouldn’t be out of place on an old honky tonk record from the 1940s. “Boll Weevil”, meanwhile, is essentially a camp holler that has been seasoned with pentatonic riffing and phrasing that is reminiscent of traditional Irish music, with some extremely funky mouth harp playing to boot.
This ability to emulate these intertwined genres is especially pronounced and distinguished in the overall orchestration and production on the album besides the typical instrumentation of guitars, bass, drum and vocals, there are also the aforementioned fiddles, banjos, harmonica, various percussion instruments and even the occasional accordions—all instruments you may have come across in someone’s home in the time period that this music draws mostly from. The relaxed production complements this, making it sound like a record of a bunch of friends sitting in a circle after a meal and playing songs with and to each other. There is a synergy of familiarity within the players on the album that is worth more than gold.
Even if there are occasional moments where the songs aren’t particularly interesting (“Honey in Your Pocket”) or built largely around chord progressions that falter around their awkwardness (“Movin’ Up”), most of the songs are in the good-to-great range, serving as little love letters to the once-and-future styles of music that these players are s endeared to, both directly (see “Music”) and indirectly (opener “Bayou Belle”, of all the songs, sounds the most like an overall tribute to the blues). One of the shining moments on the album is “In My Time”, where Bibb assumes the persona of the Blues itself and testifies to the way that this music can fit so comfortably in the lives of anyone and be so relatable for people from all walks of life; ‘I’ve been the first, I’ve been the last./ I’ve taken it easy, I’ve lived life fast./ I’ve seen it all in my time.’
For all the darkness that seems to be linked to the blues (a reputation Bibb himself confronts directly with his cover of the traditional “Sinnerman”) there are far more moments of pure joy on this album than any overwrought displays of agony. “Sittin’ In a Hotel Room” shows a man completely at peace with the world, while “Every Wind in the River” is philosophical in its acceptance of whatever life chooses to throw our way. These two songs most certainly infuse another important roots genre, that of gospel, into the music, despite the fact that explicit references to anything religious are few and far between.
The album ends with a version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that turns Dylan’s urgency message of revolution into a simple, hushed proclamation as if to suggest that one could no sooner stop the changing of the world than one could stop the tides from coming in. And the irony of choosing this song, one that was written almost fifty years ago, is that the times have truly not changed that much. This music, what many would refer to as an anachronism, is still vital, still has the ability to move people and to stir their souls, and that is something that Eric Bibb has effectively accomplished here.
// Notes from the Road
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