Blues in twos

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

Eric Bibb is one of those few ex­po­nents of truly Amer­i­can mu­sic who prefers to play it, and live, on the other side of the ocean. Like the jazz sax­o­phon­ist Dex­ter Gor­don, who spent 15 years in the mid­dle of his ca­reer in Swe­den and France, blues­man Bibb has been a res­i­dent of Europe for decades.

“There is a very hap­pen­ing scene here with jazz, blues, and clas­si­cal mu­sic,” he said from his home in Helsinki. Bibb re­cently moved there af­ter nearly 30 years in Stock­holm. “You know, there’s a re­ally rich folk-mu­sic, world-mu­sic scene hap­pen­ing in Swe­den, and some­how I’ve been able to be in­cluded in that. It’s funny when you get a lit­tle bit well known and you’re as­so­ci­ated with a smaller coun­try — all of a sud­den, even though I’m an Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen, you get claimed as a na­tive son. It’s pretty flat­ter­ing.”

Bibb plays Santa Fe and Al­bu­querque on a dou­ble bill with Texas singer-song­writer Ruthie Foster on Satur­day and Sun­day, Feb. 13 and 14. The son of folk singer Leon Bibb has recorded more than a dozen al­bums since his 1997 de­but Good Stuff, on which he sings and plays six-and 12-string gui­tars, Na­tional steel gui­tar, banjo, and lute on a set of mostly self-penned songs. His most re­cent disc is Booker’s Gui­tar, named in honor of the late great Delta blues player Booker White.

On the al­bum’s sec­ond song, “With My Maker I Am One,” he sings, “I am the mas­ter, whip in my hand/ I am the slave from a dis­tant land,” against a cool, re­peat­ing gui­tar fig­ure. “That’s one of my fa­vorite songs and maybe one of the most am­bi­tious in re­ally find­ing a way to keep it go­ing and not hav­ing the vo­cal have to be slav­ishly, rhyth­mi­cally at­tached to the gui­tar part,” he said. “It’s kind of a left/right-brain thing, get­ting them both work­ing in­de­pen­dently. I’ve spent a lot of time on that, and now that I’ve kind of cracked it, I don’t have to learn the tech­niques again from song to song. I’ve pen­e­trated some­thing. It has to do with re­lax­ing. It’s a very funny phe­nom­e­non. I can’t re­ally dis­sect it.

“For me it’s been re­ally won­der­ful to es­tab­lish on record, in one place, this con­nec­tion to a whole lin­eage. Even though my ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up [in New York in the 1950s and 1960s] was so dif­fer­ent from many of my he­roes, I feel a real con­nec­tion to that whole line of troubadours.”

He was talk­ing about the early-20th-cen­tury cadre of coun­try-blues per­form­ers such as Charley Pat­ton, Robert John­son, Skip James, Rev­erend Gary Davis, Lon­nie John­son, and Son House. Though Bibb feels a kin­ship with the mem­bers of that mu­si­cal brother­hood, he has not cov­ered their songs. He said that has never been his fo­cus, and one of the rea­sons is that he en­joys writ­ing orig­i­nal ma­te­rial.

“It re­ally is sat­is­fy­ing, and par­tic­u­larly I find writ­ing blues tunes that are kind of com­pa­ra­ble to the reper­toire of some of th­ese he­roes re­quires a whole new set of rules. You have to be very aware of the lan­guage, first of all, that you’re deal­ing with. You have to stay in char­ac­ter, but at the same time you don’t want it to be a car­toon. You have to trust you’re go­ing to be in­spired by some­thing that’s real, as op­posed to forc­ing some­thing.”

Im­pro­vi­sa­tion is not a cen­tral part of his mu­sic. “There will be a de­gree of ad-lib­bing in a live per­for­mance,” he said, “but my ap­proach is more or less to be faith­ful to the com­po­si­tion. I heard Robert John­son was also like that, and he stuck out that way be­cause most of the play­ers from his time were more spon­ta­neous.”

On Booker’s Gui­tar, Bibb plays a very spe­cial in­stru­ment, a 1930s-era Na­tional Reso-Phonic gui­tar that once be­longed to White. It was pre­sented to Bibb by a fan. “He didn’t give it to me; he ba­si­cally said it’s avail­able to me when I need it,” Bibb said. “I’ll have ac­cess to it on a Bri­tish tour I’m plan­ning in the spring. Just the ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ence see­ing it and get­ting to play it was enough. I hear there was an­other gui­tar that Booker White played that has ended up with Derek Trucks.”

Trucks’ Al­ready Free won a Grammy for Best Con­tem­po­rary Blues Al­bum on Jan. 31. One of the other nom­i­nees in that cat­e­gory was The Truth Ac­cord­ing to Ruthie Foster. “I just got in from the Gram­mys,” Foster told Pasatiempo on Feb. 2. “That was a big ad­ven­ture.” She was speak­ing from her home in Texas, where she was raised. “I grew up with a lot of mu­sic, gospel and blues, in the house,” she said. “My mother was a beau­ti­ful singer, and my great-un­cles sang in dif­fer­ent churches.” Foster lis­tened to all kinds of recorded mu­sic on the ra­dio, in­clud­ing The Bea­tles and coun­try mu­sic and, once in a while, a jazz song.

On ‘Booker’s Gui­tar,’ Eric Bibb plays a very spe­cial in­stru­ment — a 1930s-era

Na­tional Reso-Phonic gui­tar that once be­longed to Delta Blues player Booker White.

“Oh, yeah. That was con­sid­ered the dif­fi­cult stuff,” she re­called. “Jazz was some­thing I al­ways wanted to do, and I did get a chance to sing in a big band in col­lege and then also with the Navy.” Foster is a vet­eran of the U.S. Navy. When she was sta­tioned in Charleston, South Carolina, she sang ar­range­ments of songs by Count Basie, Frank Si­na­tra, and Duke Elling­ton with a big band that played at com­mu­nity events, and she toured with an­other Navy band that spe­cial­ized in top-40 funk. “We went into a lot of the in­ner-city schools. You had to pretty much be on top of your game, be­cause th­ese guys would boo you off the stage,” she laughed.

Foster has de­vel­oped a beau­ti­ful, hearty singing voice that shines on bel­ters as well as on blues bal­lads like “Tears of Pain,” one of five songs she com­posed for The Truth Ac­cord­ing to Ruthie Foster. “I try to write what I’m feel­ing, or some­times I’ll just pick a genre I want to try or some­one else’s voice. I ac­tu­ally had She­mekia Copeland in mind when I wrote ‘ Tears of Pain.’ She has a voice that can tell a story at the same time as she’s sin­gin’ and cryin’ and all that. That sis­ter can sing.”

Her song “Truth!” (which ap­pears on her new al­bum, with blaz­ing elec­tric gui­tar by Robben Ford) “just kind of wrote it­self,” she said. “I woke up one morn­ing, and I re­mem­ber looking up the def­i­ni­tion. I pulled out my Web­ster’s dic­tio­nary, and it just kind of went from there, with a re­ally cool groove I’d been work­ing on for weeks. I was lis­ten­ing to a lot of Sta­ple Singers at the time; that’s how it started out, any­way.”

She’s com­ing to New Mex­ico with Tanya Richardson on bass gui­tar and vi­o­lin and Sa­man­tha Banks on drums. They will per­form songs from The Truth Ac­cord­ing to Ruthie Foster, and she may share the stage with Bibb as well. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m so looking for­ward to see­ing my buddy— my spirit brother, I like to call him.”

Bibb will lay out ma­te­rial from Booker’s Gui­tar, ac­com­pa­nied by Grant Der­mody, who plays har­mon­ica on that al­bum as well as on Bibb’s 2008 disc Get on Board. The gui­tarist won’t have the vin­tage Booker White in­stru­ment with him on this trip, but he will have his two fa­vorite road gui­tars— a stan­dard and a bari­tone, both made by Fylde Gui­tars of Pen­rith, Cum­bria, Eng­land.

“We’re looking for­ward to play­ing quite a few of the tunes from the new record, and Ruthie and I will do a few things to­gether,” Bibb said. “Ruthie is some­body who, if I had my way and the time to get it all to­gether, you know, we would do a whole project to­gether. She’s amaz­ing.”

Ruthie Foster

Eric Bibb

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