Eric Bibb & North Country Far, with Danny Thompson,
The Happiest Man in the World
(Stony Plain, 2016)

Eric Bibb is a sort of folk-and-blues equivalent to the late jazz-and-pop artist Nat King Cole. Not only are their vocal styles comparable, they are exceptional musicians. The other part of that is this: you're going to get plenty of love songs from Bibb, as you would be entitled to expect from an album boldly titled The Happiest Man in the World.

Actually, Bibb, whose more recent CDs I've reviewed in this space (most lately the excellent Lead Belly's Gold, with French harmonica ace JJ Milteau, on 21 November 2015), usually seems an easy-going man who enjoys his life and his music. I say "usually" only because he has a social conscience to which he gives voice in the occasional pointed song. Not, however, in Happiest Man which in good part concerns contented romantic love, which is not -- let's face it -- always the most thrilling subject to hear about, however desirable it may be in one's own circumstance. Yet Bibb has a way with melodies, so if the lyrics don't grab you, you can hang on to tune, performance and arrangement, all of them at a high level of artistry.

An acoustic band, North Country Far consists of three Finns (two of them brothers) whom Bibb befriended while living in Helsinki. Danny Thompson is a familiar name, a longtime British jazz, blues and folk figure admired for his superior skills on acoustic bass. Most who have heard of him and are reading these words will likely have encountered him first as a mainstay of the 1970s/'80s British folk supergroup Pentangle.

Two collaborations between Bibb and poet Wendell Berry prove especially felicitous. In my hearing the evocative meditation "Prison of Time" is the album's outstanding cut, something to get lost in, while the chillingly death-haunted "On the Porch" isn't far behind.

Bibb has a fine vocal arrangement of the traditional African-American ballad "Tell Ol' Bill." First collected by Carl Sandburg, it was later recorded almost definitively by the late Dave Van Ronk on one of his early Folkways albums, pushing nearly all subsequent versions in a dark and harsh direction. (Bob Dylan covered it twice [sort of], first as old folk song, then decades later as self-composition with the same title.) In Bibb's reading it's still a sad story, just one less furiously told and with, perhaps, a shade more nuance.

Bibb grew up with a father active in the 1960s New York City folk revival, which remains his reference point. But out of that grand cultural moment he's fashioned his own sound, carved out of his own particular approach to guitar and banjo. He's often called a blues singer, probably because that's where all black men with guitars (especially acoustic ones) get pigeon-holed, when "blues-inflected" probably better characterizes his approach. He records rather prolifically (something like an album a year), but he knows what he wants to do and how to go about it. He also happens to be an eminently likable performer in more than simply the purely musical sense.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 June 2016

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