Eric Bibb,
(Telarc, 2004)

Eric Bibb has a lot of musical pals and more than a dozen of them show up on Friends.

Some of Bibb's friends will be familiar; Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite and Odetta are among the biggest names gracing this album. But each of the 14 guests brings something individual to the recording.

Friends starts out as a wonderful blues album. Guy Davis duets with Bibb on the Rev. E.W. Clayborn-penned opening track, "99 1/2 Won't Do," lending it a grittiness that Bibb's vocals alone couldn't have managed. Davis's harmonica and guitar are also perfectly attuned to the celebratory folk/gospel air of the track.

Next up, Bibb moves out of the rural south to present an urban blues that urges, "Let's get together people, stop the killing on the street." Charlie Musselwhite's reverb-drenched harmonica meshes with the echoing vocals and simple, yet layered, drum track to create a haunting, desperate mood that contrasts powerfully with the preceding track. Then on "Goin' Down Slow" it's Taj Mahal's turn to shine as he lends his guitar and vocal styling to this 12-bar blues. The use of Michael Jerome Brown on fiddle, giving this track a distinct personality, is a stroke of production genius that had me salivating for the remaining dozen tracks on Friends.

But Bibb sets the blues aside somewhat to cover "one of [his] favorite Taj Mahal tunes," "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes." Here the use of the kora (a 21-string West African harp-lute) played by Mamadou Diabate further distances the track from the blues mood established on the opening tracks. The song is lovely, and if a return to core blues had followed on its heels, it would have been an elegant and ideal mood change. However, "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes" marks the start of a swing to the saccharine. "For You," a Bibb original featuring guest vocalist Ruthie Foster, takes the listener further down this over-sweet road and the album never recovers the magnificent energy it built during the opening trio of exceptional blues tracks.

For me the biggest problem with Friends is that it has too little tying the individual tracks together in terms of mood. "Just Look Up," "The Cape" and "'Tain't Such a Much" are light-hearted ditties of the soaring human spirit. "Needed Time" with its tablas and Indian lap-style guitar, "If I Stayed," which features Kristina Olsen on concertina, and the aforementioned "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes" take the listener on a world-spanning musical journey. And while Bibb may have set out to meld blues and country themes in writing "Cowgirl Blues," the inclusion of an electric ukulele solo in the recording is a truly bizarre notion.

Friends closes with a simple guitar and piano duet on the track "Dance Me to the End of Love," a pretty song Bibb composed two days before his eldest son's wedding. And when the last note fades I think most listeners will have a tough time deciding whether to file the disc under B (for Bibb and Brilliant Blues) or F (for Friends and Failed Experiment).

by Gregg Thurlbeck
3 February 2007

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