Blues in twos
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.”