[16 February 2010]
On Booker’s Guitar bluesman Eric Bibb opens with the title track, speaking about someone else’s guitar, meditating on someone else’s history and an object’s intercontinental travels. On first listen, it’s an odd way to open an album. It’s pushing everything outward, nearly to flat narration. On future listens, it makes sense. Bibb’s not spinning the story outward; he’s pulling it in. He’s an intimate songwriter—to clutch at cliche—but he’s not a self-obsessed one. The choice of opener makes sense, and as the album spins through, Bibb’s art accumulates enough weight to suggest he belongs in that lineage that Booker White’s guitar comes from, and not just as a narrator.
We’ll skip the track-by-track profile, but it’s useful to look at the second track here, “With My Maker, I Am One”. The opener was a meditative, half-spoken-half-sung track, melding external plot with personal reflection. The next track changes tempo with a bouncy, boppy acoustic blues (most of the tracks here are some variation of the Delta style) and a personal description that both encompasses and rejects a wide range of personality. Bibb sings, “I am the doctor / Saving the sick / I am the junkie / Craving a fix”. It’s a simplistic series of juxtapositions creating less of a complex personality than a split one, but Bibb pulls it all together with the title refrain. That short sentence comments on both Bibb (that he’s more than these various half-true aspects of himself, because his essential identity is tied in with his relationship to his maker) and on his maker (a god who’s capable of being in relationship with any variety of people).
The song’s an interesting response to its predecessor, in using a continual return to first-person declarations to tackle external concerns. By taking on too many identities to legitimately be one person, the narrator quickly expands the song to include his listeners. You can buy that someone could be a preacher and a juke-joint hero (it’s not unlikely, in fact), but not that they can also be the doctor, junkie, etc. With the audience properly incorporated into the song, it turns to a theological statement, and yet the broader, community-based statement is ultimate a personal one in which Bibb defines his own identity. It’s not accidental that the only pronouns in the song’s title are first-person.
You could argue there’s a bit of academic excess in breaking down the song in that fashion, but it hints at the manner in which Bibb works inwardly and outwardly at the same time, not to to make philosophical points, but to more simply make good music. None of which should suggest that Bibb is high-minded. One of the most unlikely cuts on Booker’s Guitar, “Turning Pages” is a playful ode to reading. The song’s not a far leap from a Sesame Street moment, but Bibb’s silly pleasure is infectious. As goofy as it sounds, though, it makes perfect sense in this reflective disc. Bibb has commented on how some of his heroes were illiterate, and writing this sort of blues song makes an unusual play on history, while preventing Bibb from falling into type.
This type of artistry makes Booker’s Guitar continually interesting and enjoyable, and while Bibb excels as a songwriter, he’s also an effective interpreter, creating a slow mournful rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger”. It’s a song that’s been done enough times that it hardly seems another cover is necessary, yet Bibb adds one more strong version to the canon. With Bibb constantly looking inward and outward and providing thoughtful, frequently optimistic takes on his genre, he’s created work that lives up to the traditions that produced it.