Eric Bibb,
Diamond Days
(Telarc, 2006)

Just as any white guy with a banjo is automatically a bluegrass musician, according to conventional wisdom about these things, so any black guy with a guitar is a bluesman. In truth, this happens to be false. Eric Bibb is an African-American musician and a guitarist (and a very good one), and while blues is not absent from his approach, he is not, in fact, what is ordinarily thought of as a bluesman.

The son of the 1960s folk-revival figure Leon Bibb, he is a singer-songwriter rooted in various strains of vernacular music. He would not have been out of place in the Greenwich Village of the mid-1960s, when "folk music" was being redefined as something larger than strictly traditional songs, specifically as a vehicle for personal expression set in broadly folk-like arrangements. Nowadays, sadly, many "folk singers" know practically nothing about actual folk music, as no less than Bob Dylan -- who bears some responsibility for this lamentable state of affairs -- has repeatedly complained.

Well, Eric Bibb knows a lot about real folk music. Songs on Diamond Days drop references to Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, the Rev. Gary Davis and Son House, and his guitar style proudly echoes the masters. There is also a strong element of black gospel, in the senses of both musical sound and religious conviction. His "In My Father's House" is an exemplary neo-traditional gospel tune and my favorite cut on the album.

Overall, Bibb seems far too happy and good-natured to make for a plausible bluesman, and I'm sure that's all right by him. You might say he gives the impression of someone who does not wake up with bullfrogs on his mind. As a general principle, his compositions amount to sunny life affirmations, flowing with friendly, sometimes almost new age-flavored advice about the virtues of peace, respect, understanding and love.

It's far harder to write a positive song than a dark or angry one, and I suspect that if someone less talented than Bibb were singing them, these sorts of bromides (e.g., the unsubtly titled "Forgiveness is Gold") would be hard to swallow. What saves them is Bibb's wonderfully expressive singing and appealing guitar style, abetted by producer Glen Scott's rich, intelligent arrangements. Even the most cynical, in spite of themselves, will find Bibb eminently -- if surprisingly -- engaging company.

The album closes with the traditional "Worried Man Blues." It's not a blues, and Bibb isn't a worried man, but it's really good anyway.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

2 June 2007

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