One thing's for sure: Eric Bibb is one of contemporary blues' most prolific artists. He's released roughly an album a year since 1997, for both U.S.-based and European labels, and has maintained an active touring schedule on both sides of the Atlantic on top of that. What's harder to pin down is Bibb's sound. In the simplest terms, he's an acoustic bluesman – but a truly accurate description of Bibb's style would also have to include words such as "singer/songwriter," "gospel" and "country." That's how eclectic he is.
Eric Bibb's Troubadour Live
But there's no need for pundits to attempt to pigeonhole the 59-year-old Bibb. He sums up his stylistic inclinations himself on the title track to his second in-concert album, Troubadour Live. After name-checking blues, gospel, soul and rock 'n' roll, he finally tells us he's merely "singin' about what I'm livin', plus a little bit more/You can call me a troubadour." The song first appeared on Bibb's 2005 disc A Ship Called Love; co-written with Ruthie Foster, the version here glows with the same warm light of positivity that inhabits all of Bibb’s best work.
The set kicks off, though, with a crowd-pleasing cover of Guy Clark’s late-period masterpiece “The Cape,” a parable about the importance of taking chances in life. In starting an album with a countryish tune by a well-known Texas singer-songwriter, it’s almost as if Bibb’s admitting right from the top that if you’re looking for a pure blues experience, you might want to go elsewhere.
New World Comin' Through
That’s not to say there isn’t some serious blues on Troubadour Live. “New Home,” one of seven tracks featuring electric guitarist Staffan Astner (who is co-billed on the album cover), twists a standard blues progression through an unusual chord substitution in the ninth measure. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by Chris Smither and, in fact, Smither is an apt reference point for Bibb’s music in general: blues-based folk that goes out of its way to be simultaneously easygoing and philosophical.
“New World Comin’ Through” is another straight blues, this time with the sparkling harmonies of gospel trio Psalm4 adding a deep soul feel. Psalm4 also appear on “Thanks For The Joy,” where the group’s call-and-response vocals come to an end too soon, the up-tempo track running barely two minutes. The most interesting of the tracks performed with Psalm4 is “Connected” (drawn from Bibb’s 2004 album Friends); the addition of twinkling piano adds spice to the recording, and if Bibb’s lyrical version of spirituality doesn’t seem, in theory, like it would mesh with a traditional gospel group, it actually turns out to be an ideal match, providing the disc’s best interplay among musicians.
Walkin' Blues Again
Bibb’s songwriting prowess shines brightest on “Tell Riley,” from his W.C. Handy Award-nominated album Natural Light. It’s a clever, electric tune that imagines a young Bukka White and his younger cousin, B.B. King, with White saying of his relative, “Mark my words/He’s gonna be big someday.” "Walkin’ Blues Again" references the legend of John Henry; here, Astner’s electric guitar solo, full of vibrato, is both organically simple and supremely soulful. And “Shavin’ Talk” takes a time-worn blues topic – a man might be in bad financial shape, but the love of a good woman can make him feel as rich as any millionaire – and transforms it into something new, its addictive acoustic guitar figure complementing several inventive turns of phrase.
Troubadour Live ends with a pair of new studio recordings, and they’re both standouts. “Put Your Love First” is a country duet with Australian musician Troy Cassar-Daley, whose intimate-sounding vocals are a dead ringer for those of James Taylor, and “If You Were Not My Woman” has a light reggae feel punctuated by bursts of staccato guitar. It seems a bit random to tack two studio tracks onto a live record, but they’re of such high quality that they outweigh any concerns about album cohesiveness.
Ken's Bottom Line
With only one tune repeated from Bibb’s previous live release, 2007’s mostly solo An Evening With Eric Bibb (for the record, the duplication is “For You”), Troubadour Live is both a terrific introduction to this artist’s remarkably rich catalog of work and a fine sampling of what to expect if you go to see Bibb perform live. If you like your acoustic blues with a dose of folkie eclecticism – or you’re just a fan of top-notch songwriting – there’s little chance you’ll find this album anything but warm, pleasant and deeply satisfying. (Telarc Records, released May 10, 2011)
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