Eric Bibb,
Jericho Road
(Stony Plain, 2013)

The Sojourners,
Sing & Never Get Tired
(Little Pig, 2013)

On their third album, the Sojourners offer up a dozen songs in their gospel-folk vein, employing the harmony style of singing associated most prominently with the Blind Boys of Alabama, though hardly original with them. Recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sing & Never Get Tired is afforded a tough-sounding, bluesy production courtesy of Canadian roots musician Paul Pigat.

Not every song is explicitly, or even implicitly, Christian. Still, surprising choices such as Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home" not only fit in but stand out. While the latter, a Depression-era lament, is devoid of specific religious references, Guthrie wrote it from the template of Albert Brumley's hillbilly gospel song "This World is Not My Home."

Elsewhere, the Sojourners turn in moving performances of old-time spirituals such as "This Train," "Welcome Table," "Ezekiel" and "Milky White Way," along with more recent black sacred songs from the likes of Pops Staples and Sojourner Marcus Mosely. I like everything here except Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth," for which I have long harbored a polite detestation that commenced when I heard it on the first Buffalo Springfield album. The famous first two lines - "Something's happening here / What it is ain't exactly clear" -- tell it all: an ostensible protest song that is in truth about nothing. It seems a curious choice for a group as committed to social action as these guys, but don't let that stop you.

Since any black man with a guitar is automatically labeled a blues singer, that's how singer-songwriter Eric Bibb typically gets pigeon-holed. In reality, Bibb, who is a talented finger-picking acoustic player, has the soul, not least of it the social conscience, of a 1960s folk singer. (His father Leon Bibb was a 1960s folk singer.) On the ambitious Jericho Road Bibb and his producer Glen Scott spice up the sound, not always felicitously, with r&b-pop textures of the sort that never fails to put me in a produce section of the mind.

Fortunately, that's only an occasional distraction. Bibb always seems a good guy with strong values, which he promotes on his recordings in the fashion of a more urbane Pete Seeger. He is, let me stress, no raw-throated troubadour. To the contrary, it's not hard to detect theatrical training in his approach. His vocals are smoothly delivered and perfectly pitched (think Nat King Cole), his songwriting the same, though its frequent subject -- injustice and the struggle for its opposite -- reflects a deep and abiding commitment.

If I'm not crazy about some of the production, I guess I can't blame the man for wanting to try something a little different. Besides, I can't possibly complain about the stirring version of the enduring "Drinkin' Gourd," from the era of the Underground Railroad. It will never wear out its welcome, or -- as a testament to the struggle for a decent society -- its necessity.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 December 2013

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