[9 May 2011]
After a lifetime playing music, most musicians probably have a sense of what their sound is. Maybe it’s because he’s made a career and an art out of slipping between genres, but singer and guitarist Eric Bibb might not have officially named his role until 2005, nearly 30 years after his solo debut, Rainbow People. That year he released “Troubadour” on A Ship Called Love. The mantle of troubadour fits Bibb perfectly, so it’s no wonder he named his new live album simply Troubadour Live. The album, which features guitarist Staffan Astner as well as Psalm4, succinctly captures Bibb’s aesthetic, summing up who he is without sating the desire for more.
The track “Troubadour”, of course, made it onto the album, taken from a live set in Sweden last December. This performance bounces more than the original recording, probably fitting for the tone of the concert. Coming third in the show, the song’s positioned to explain what’s to come. Bibb explains himself when asked (in the song) what kind of music he plays: “Gonna hear some blues …. Gospel, soul, and some good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll … They call me a troubadour”. All those styles and more do show up throughout the rest of the set.
Listeners might most quickly categorize Bibb as a blues guitarist. Cuts like the BB King ode “Tell Riley” wouldn’t dispel that idea, and Astner’s electric work here builds a classic sound beautifully against Bibb’s acoustic. You can trace the blues sound throughout the album—“Walkin’ Blues Again” is an obvious choice for more than just its title—but the folk influences probably stand out more, particularly in Bibb’s situating himself as an acoustic guitarist-storyteller.
At other times, it’s hard to miss the heavy gospel influence (in both the traditional sense and in the soul sense of someone like the Staple Singers). “New World Comin’ Through” starts out almost like a rolling Mississippi blues cut, maybe somewhere between Burnside and Hooker, but it quickly turns into the sort of number that Mavis Staples might record these days. Psalm4 adds to the sound with their gospel vocals, and provide the musical lift to match Bibb’s vocals. The lyrics and performance leave interpretative room to place this “new world” in either an eschatological or an earthly social context. The effect, either way, is memorable.
The album’s not nearly as heavy as that might suggest, and following “New World Comin’ Through” with “Thanks for the Joy” returns the balance, brightening the mood with a happy song of thanksgiving. The backing vocals and song’s placement don’t resist a spiritual reading of this number, though it’s not essential. That sort of possibility probably says more about the more broadly spiritual sense of Bibb’s music than it does anything else.
The two new studio numbers included at the end of the disc are fine, but their inclusion is a little odd. “Put Your Love First” is a competent but not memorable duet. “If You Were Not My Woman” shines happily into reggae. Its placement represents Bibb’s long-running interest in international musics, but otherwise adds little. These tracks serve the hardcore fan, and keep in mind that it’s not that hard to just stop the disc after the live material.
Even so (and maybe partly because of that ending), Troubadour Live provides a strong take at Bibb’s work. Over the course of a live set, Bibb merges his wide variety of genres, not in a musical historian way, nor in discrete moments (despite the way individual track analyses might suggest that). Instead, he crafts a particular, coherent sound, full of both his musical vision and his personality. Combine that aesthetic with strong performances and fitting guests, and you’ve got a show worth hearing.