Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Eric Bibb at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Eric Bibb is a legendary acoustic blues and gospel performer who brought his band to Edinburgh last Thursday. I've heard Eric's music many times over the years, notably on a weekly radio show called, "The Gospel Blues Train" presented by my old friend Lins Honeyman. His show goes out over various local and internet radio stations around the UK. We met Lins at the gig, who had just come from interviewing Eric Bibb for his show.

The evening began with a set from Eric's daughter Yana Bibb, who sang a fine set of jazz inflections to the accompaniment of a rich, complex jazz piano. Her father might have been raised in America, and naturally root into Blues - but apparently he brought Yana up in Scandanavia where jazz is hugely influential. As she sang, and chatted, I spotted a proud father (wearing a dustintive hat) sitting a few rows in front of us!

Eric Bibb took to the stage to huge applause and got his set underway with a splendid solo rendition of "Going Down Slow" - a song I will forever associate with Ray Charles, but predates him by some decades. Its been convered by everyone from Champion Jack Dupree to Led Zep. It's a great song for Eric Bibb to re-interpret, as the lyrics are a typical blues lament; shot through with some Black Church infused soul-searching. Ray Charles sometimes ventured into that interconnecting zone between gospel and blues on tracks like Sinners Prayer; but Eric Bibb seems to be rooted in that zone, even when he forays beyond it.

After that initial solo performance, Bibb brought a whole band on to accompany his accoustic guitar and voice. He added lead guitar, double bass, and two backing vocalist for virtually the whole set; and drew on a pianist, and sax/woodwind player for some selections; and added his daughter to the vocal section for the encores. They may have been playing music rooted in African-America, but they were a geneuinely international cast of characers and talent from Sweden, Ireland, South Africa, America and Finland! Hugely talented and able to perform as a tight unit around Eric Bibb's lead, they put on a wonderful show together.

Wayfaring Stranger was a particular highlight for me. In Edinburgh, Bibb described the way in which this hymn-like song had been written 'somewhere close to here', but had been exported to America centuries ago. Someone had taught it to slave children, who had passed it on through generations of curators and performers of Black American music. The song doesn't just lament the losses of life in a cruel and unjust world, as a straight blues might. Rather, it is infused with a gospel hope of reunion on the other side of 'jordan' - that Biblical river, so often deployed in literature and song, as a metaphor for death. The slaves (said Bibb), understood this yearning, longing hope - and adopted, and adapted the song, which he then brought back to the land where it was first written. Here's a version of that song he recorded a few years ago.

In addition to slower songs like that, Bibb and band also ripped through some of his more upbeat numbers. Here's Bibb with a rather different band, doing "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down"  

It's once again at that gospel-infused interchange, where not being turned round, might be a matter of loyalty to the gospel and hoping for heaven; but with an eye on the fact that not being turned around, was the song of the civil rights marchers here on earth too. Black theology never restricted the gospel to being something only effective after death anyway..

Civil Rights and the African American struggle to assert their dignity and achieve equality in a land to which their ancestors were brought in chains, was another significant theme of Bibb's songs on Thursday night. While some songs are straightforward protest songs, sometimes story-songs can be more powerful in connecting an audience with the lives of a distant people. Bibb's song Rosewood, was a breathtaking example of this. Despite studying (and doing some postgrad research) into race relations in American History, I had never come across the Rosewood Massacre. 

The tragic story is of a Florida town which exploded into racial conflict in 1923, was burned to the ground and never rebuilt. The lyrics Bibb assembled for this beuatifully disturbing song are lifted from a transript of the testimony of the last living survivor of the carnage. This song is haunting, sorrowful and all the more emotive for being a first-person account of a microcosm of the tragedy of racial conflict. The lines in the second verse stopped me in my tracks:
Newspapers told how many
Whites an' blacks were counted dead
But the tears had no colour - 
The tears their families shed.
Rosewood.... buried in the ashes of history.
The gig ended with Bibb's most well-known song, "Needed Time", a big full-band singalong to his version of the old spiritual song made famous by the great Lightnin' Hopkins. It's a prayer, born of desperation for the mercy and presence of Jesus - that He might 'come by here', even if only briefly. The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh was originally built as a church. As the sound of Black Gospel swept through it on Thursday night, it was as if those old stones were revisiting their original purpose. There's a great little article about The Needed Time, at Gary Burnett's Down At The Crossroads blog here.

Eric Bibb and his band put on a wonderful gig on Thursday. The self-styled "Happiest Man In The World", delivered a high-class show, full of surprises, joy, hope, sorrow, stories, protest, history, and brilliant musicianship.

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