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There are very few things I’d rather do than hear Eric Bibb sing and play. If I had to choose one person to show someone from another planet what blues is all about and what it sounds like at its best, Eric would be my man.
Eric Bibb is both a very hard-working artist and a prolific one. Starting with his wonderful debut album Spirit And The Blues on a Swedish label in 1994, he’s been putting out at least one album a year ever since, on a variety of labels. The early albums, including 1997’s Needed Time, are still hard to beat, as they had what might be regarded as Bibb’s definitive sound – Bibb’s astonishingly strong acoustic guitar picking driving everything, the trademark shuffle rhythm with light-touch drumming in an almost New Orleans style, the spot-on addition of some keyboards, mandolin, accordion and lots of double bass or double-bass style playing. And then of course, the voice.
If there’s a better singer in this or any other field, I haven’t heard them. Bibb’s voice is a thing of both beauty and power. It’s sweet and it bites too. When Eric Bibb comes on stage and plays and sings the blues solo, I defy even the most nihilistic cynic in the world not to be moved. I think he could do that in any room, anywhere in the world, to an audience of any age and nationality, and they’d all be knocked out. He’s that good.
And that’s how he always opens his set, on this tour with the standards Going Down Slow and Stagolee, though there’s nothing standard about the way Bibb does them. At the very smart Cadogan Hall in Chelsea, these were rapturously received by a packed audience. This is not your standard blues venue, and Bibb always seems to be trying to solve the problem of where exactly in London he can play. He’s bigger than the small clubs but not quite big enough for the very large venues. London’s a bit tricky for ones in the middle and he tends to play a different place here on each tour. This time it was a place that smelt of new carpet and that tends to have mainly classical music concerts.
The core band for this tour then came on - the excellent Larry Crockett on drums (though he acts more as a percussionist than just a drummer), and Trevor Hutchinson on double bass. For this event, they were augmented by Glenn Scott on keyboards and a very good guitarist whose name I didn’t catch on a sweet-sounding Telecaster. As in most Bibb gigs I’ve been to over the years we were then treated to a fine set from his constantly growing repertoire of blues/roots compositions and plenty of stirring gospel numbers. Highlights included Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down, Got To Do Better, I Heard The Angels Singin’, Right On Time and Needed Time.
Bibb’s two most recent albums are Diamond Days and this year’s Get Onboard, and from these we got Destiny Blues, Still Livin’ On, Stayed on Freedom, Get Onboard, Pockets and River Blues. All fine numbers, but now we come to my problem with Eric Bibb. In amongst all these great songs, he sprinkles, in slightly greater proportions each time, some totally different kinds of song. These songs tend not to be connected in any way with the blues or gospel or even folk. To my ears, they are sentimental ballads/pop songs. I personally find them too syrupy for my taste, though I appreciate this may say more about me than about him.
This ‘other Eric Bibb’ goes down well enough with audiences, but my experience at the many gigs of his I’ve seen is that they take everything down just when it’s all going somewhere. A fantastic blues or gospel number has really got everyone going, and the gig is building and building, and then a couple of these other songs come in and everything gets a bit twee and polite for a while. And then back we are with the good stuff and everyone’s up and running again. If only, I think every time, he stuck with the stuff he’s so brilliant at (and that he’s got a mass of in his repertoire), how fantastic he’d be.
Now of course Eric Bibb can write and sing and play whatever he damn well pleases. And I think it’s highly possible that he feels that he needs to spread out, to be much more than ‘just’ a blues and gospel artist to advance his career and make it even bigger than he is now. And he can point to how well things are going, and for example to the standing ovation he got at the Cadogan Hall. And he might well be right on all counts. Certainly, I don’t believe that any artist should be in noble pursuit of honourable obscurity, and Eric Bibb is certainly working his socks off to rise to a higher status as an artist. I hope he gets there. It’s just that I reckon I’m not the only person who thinks that the sentimental songs might just hinder his progress. I think they’re what might stop both the committed fan (like me) and the casual observer from giving him 10 out of 10.
And so, on to Cornbury and the second stage (the headliner on the main stage was Paul Simon). A large crowd assembled for Eric’s spot, and he got a great reception as he strolled out in trademark Panama hat and non-trademark white suit. He opened on his own again, and then brought out just the drummer and double bass player. Throughout the set, he played just about exclusively his blues/gospel/roots material. And he absolutely slayed ‘em.
His time slot was one hour and there wasn’t any slack in that, so maybe he decided to focus on the ‘crowd pleasers’. It was a good decision. Shorn of the kind of song that in my view spoils things, the set went at a pace, with no let-up, great number after great number. There were obviously some fans in the crowd, but some of those people were having their first experience of Eric Bibb. And what they saw was the Eric Bibb that’s just about the best thing there is today in what could loosely be described as the blues world. Those crowd pleasers are crowd pleasers for a very good reason: they’re great.
Eric Bibb in this form is a totally unique artist. He’s got his own, totally distinctive sound and style and he’s got all that natural talent to go with it. He’s also got a very large dose of genuine charisma. His guitar playing, which could easily get overlooked because of his stage presence and voice, is unique and that driving finger-picking holds everything together, every bit as powerfully as any electric guitar could, and much more interestingly than most people’s electric guitar playing. He has most certainly got his own thing and that was what was on display at Cornbury. And it tore the place up. If there had been a roof, it might well have come off.
So I rest my case. Eric Bibb is quite possibly just a fingertip away from some genuine mainstream success. He could soon be a major artist, playing the biggest venues. It only takes one or two key people to ‘discover’ him and he’s a ready-made ‘star’. He’s already introducing a lot of people to blues and gospel music who might otherwise never go near it. Many, many more may make that trip through Bibb. He deserves whatever success he’s having now and the bigger success that may come his way.
I just think it’s more likely if he keeps to the truly original style that really excites audiences. I don’t think that would limit him, because there’s plenty more in that furrow to be ploughed. He doesn’t need to do ‘the other stuff’; much as he might like it, it deflects. And I think what happened at Cornbury is powerful evidence of that.
To laughter and applause, someone in the crowd at Cornbury shouted out ‘Get on the main stage!’ If there’s any justice, he will, mate, he will.