Archive for February, 2016

in performance: eric bibb

eric bibb.

eric bibb.

“We’re all cousins,” stated Eric Bibb as his electric roots-fest of a performance headed into the home stretch last night at Berea College. The remark was a soft-spoken observation by the blues-directed stylist that served as a unifying link between two songs of severe extremes. The first was 2014’s stark Rosewood, which depicted racism caustic enough to be “buried in the ashes of history.” The second was the jovial New Home, a 2010 tune that utilized the jubilee spirit and acoustic groove potential of Bibb’s percussion-less band.

Such emotive disparity was a key to the breadth of Bibb’s music. But just as familial in feel, yet more contrasting to the ear, were the musical accents the singer and guitarist employed during the two-set, two-hour performance, all of which he drew upon for a surprisingly cohesive sound.

Though largely promoted as a blues troubadour, the concert regularly drew on Cajun inspiration (Turner Station and an especially ominous reading of Stewball), worldbeat texture (the West African vibe of Silver Spoon, which recalled the final albums of Malian journeyman Ali Farka Toure) and gospel-esque fervor (the show-closing tent revival verve of Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down).

Bibb was ably assisted in designing the performance’s wide but complimentary musical makeup. Harmonica ace Grant Dermody was a schooled disciple in the country blues playing of Sonny Terry while Cedric Watson remained at the helm of the show’s many Creole turns. Best of all was the addition of Americana scholar Dirk Powell, whose playing on banjo, accordion and mandolin cemented not only the program’s fearless and worldly reach but also its steadfast familial theme (his father was a Berea College graduate).

As such, Bibb surrendered quite a bit of stage time by featuring his bandmates so generously. But he was still very much in charge of this efficiently run roots music troupe, from the subtle folk/blues urgency of Needed Time to an elemental take of Nobody’s Fault But Mine (where the smooth, conversational tone of his singing was accompanied only by Dermody’s harp lead and hand claps) to the slower but very purposeful blues grind of Goin’ Down Slow. All proved cordial cousins within Bibb’s hearty musical brotherhood.

critic’s pick 312: lucinda Williams, ‘the ghosts of highway 20’

LW_Ghosts_Cvr_hi-758x758“Baby, you’re one piece of work,” sings Lucinda Williams during one of the arguably lighter moments of The Ghosts of Highway 20. The tune this confession seeps out of, Can’t Close the Door on Love, is aural scar tissue – a rumination sung with such slurred, sagging and exhaustive reflection that you almost miss the hope and trust waiting at its core. Williams is a champion of these battle worn laments. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is – bliss, breakup or death. Williams writes and sings like she has been through the wringer and then some. But the true beauty is how she is always left standing.

The Ghosts of Highway 20 is Williams’ second double-disc opus in only 16 months – a remarkable feat given her previous reputation for leaving long layovers between albums. In many ways, it is a companion piece to its predecessor, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Both are sparsely arranged, swirl around the guitar exchanges of Greg Leisz and jazz/Americana journeyman Bill Frisell and embrace their vivid emotions with little concern for convention. The songs are often lengthy – mostly four to six minutes with each disc ending, respectively, with nine and 12 minute epics. More than that, they are unhurried. There are a few electric outbursts, but The Ghosts of Highway 20 plays out largely as a boozy séance with streams of contemplation and unrest colored by an ambience that is, indeed, rather ghostly.

Death Came, for instance, rolls along like the river that serves as imagery for a life Williams almost seductively laments for while Bitter Memory jangles along with a honky tonk drive that makes the tune sound like an invited hangover. There is also a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Factory that is slowed from a blue collar anthem into a ragged but still affirmative family dirge.

The mammoth tunes, though, are quite extraordinary. Louisiana Story parallels two childhood remembrances – one of open family warmth, the other ruled by stricter laws of the Bible and, eventually, fear. Both are sung in succession with no variance whatsoever in Williams’ world weary singing.

The longer Faith & Grace is a combustible revival that uses its main chorus (“Faith and grace will help me run this race”) along with the title of a thematically similar 2001 Williams tune, Get Right with God, as mantras over fragments and washes of guitar melodies from Frisell that add their own level of righteousness.

Sometimes they’re ghosts. In other instances, the flesh and blood of the here and now do the talking. Williams channels them all into another beguiling séance of an album that takes the spirit even closer to the bone.

bibb and the blues: a global journey

eric bibb.

eric bibb.

Eric Bibb knows the ways of a bluesman. He knows the routes that pioneers paved before him and the avenues his contemporaries still travel in order to keep the music alive and vital.

But the singer, writer and song stylist is also versed on the side roads, the trails that wind around the blues into regions of folk and soul as well as the vast terrain that stretches between them. Bibb has followed those pathways all over the world in a career that encompasses five decades. While he is proud to be linked with the blues, there remains a drive to let audiences know his music is by no means confined or defined by them.

“I’m grateful that I have been able to make use of the interest there is in blues as a genre, all the hype included, as well as the real deal stuff,” said Bibb who performs twice in the region over the coming week – once with fellow global blues journeyman Corey Harris tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville and again on Feb. 11 on his own at Berea College.

“I’ve been able to find a way onto the blues platform, an established, marketable commodity that has helped my career. But blues is not the entirety of what I do. If I had marketed myself simply as an eclectic singer songwriter songster, I think I would have missed out on a lot of exposure that has been a real boom for me.”

To appreciate the scope of Bibb’s music, you need to meet the family. His father, Leon Bibb, was a Louisville-born champion of Broadway and the 1960s New York folk boom. His uncle was pianist John Lewis, mainstay member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His godfather was singer/activist Paul Robeson. It was that heritage that encouraged Bibb to see the world – first with his family and then on his own.

“I actually had a 13th birthday in Kiev,” Bibb said. “My dad had a tour of what was then the Soviet Union. So I had a chance to see Europe, the Soviet Union and England as a 12 year old and 13 year old. It was unusual for an African-American family to be traveling around Europe in the mid 60s. So it was a blessing. It probably had a lot to do with me moving to Europe when I came of age, having had a taste of something that must have peaked my curiosity.

“I’m not the first blues troubadour who has traveled around the world. Big Bill Broonzy was in Europe early on. Leadbelly was in Paris in 1949 before he died. So I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition, not only musically but just in terms of my wandering. It’s been a gift, truly.”

Such globetrotting, along with ties to a like-minded generation of musicians (Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart and performance mate Harris) that revere the blues without being pigeonholed by them has helped inform a remarkably prolific recording career. In recent years, Bibb’s output has included a well-rounded blues and soul solo session (2013’s Jericho Road), a summit with a pack of genre-busting roots music stylists that includes the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal (2014’s Blues People), a Leadbelly-inspired project with French harmonica ace J.J. Milteau (2015’s Leadbelly’s Gold) and a forthcoming collaboration with veteran British bassist Danny Thompson (The Happiest Man in the World).

“It’s challenging to juggle all of this history without making a cartoon out of it, without lumping all of the African-American experience into one howl. This music, it’s varied and it’s subtle. Getting all that across in a genre that tends to characterize the music and the musicians is challenging. But educating ourselves, as well our audiences, is part of what this journey is about, too.”

Corey Harris and Eric Bibb perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut in Danville. Tickets are $38. Call 877-448-7469 or go to nortoncenter.com. Bibb will also perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College in Berea. Admission is free. Call 859-985-3965 or go to berea.edu/convocations.

maurice white, 1941-2016

maurice white.

maurice white.

The first time I heard Maurice White – the first time, in fact, I heard Earth, Wind & Fire – was during that curious era of early ‘70s television when programs like In Concert, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special blurred genres during the wee hours and introduced a generation to music that only the early days of FM radio was addressing.

It was also the first time I heard someone playing kalimba in a contemporary setting, a tip to the rootsy drive and eclecticism prevalent in EWF’s music even then. This was roughly two years before That’s the Way of the World established the band as a star attraction. Its music was funk with jazz-like temperaments, all of which played out on the first record I bought that involved White’s buoyant optimism. Curiously, it wasn’t an EWF album, but Ramsey Lewis’ 1973 gem Sun Goddess – the title tune of which featured White and the band he founded as willing jazz fusion accomplices.

During their ‘70s heyday, White and EWF were the Beatles of contemporary R&B. They had everything – singers of wildly different extremes, an almost orchestral musicality and a groove as serious and unrelenting as anything the more overt funk bands of the day were dishing out. They could play to the pop crowd. They could write. They could swing. And onstage, all that kinetic groove and joy ignited into a party beyond belief, as shown by its New Year’s Eve 1977 performance here at Rupp Arena. Throughout, White was the ringleader – a tireless frontman that radiated the uncompromising warmth and invitation that was always at the heart of EWF’s music.

The magic remained intact through much of the ‘80s (EWF’s 1980 double album, Faces, remains an overlooked classic). Having bowed out of the band two decades ago due to the growing ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, EWF never wavered from his vision. As promised by Head to the Sky, the album the band was promoting during those early ‘70s TV jams, his music was the R&B voice of hope and celebration. That was truly the way of Maurice White’s world.

critic’s pick 311: bill frisell, ‘when you wish upon a star’

BillFrisell-WhenYouWishUponAStar-Cover72How fitting that the first musical voice you hear on When You Wish Upon a Star, Bill Frisell’s sublime new sampler of retooled film and television scores from decades past, doesn’t belong to the celebrated guitarist. What greets us initially is the lone viola of longtime Frisell ally Eyvind Kang as it all blows through the late summery unrest of Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird theme. Fear not, though. Frissell’s light but ominous guitar lines soon dance along with a rhythm section that, throughout the album, efficiently balances its sense of adventure with loose solidarity. What results is a ballet of sorts – one tempered and elegant that reaffirms Frisell’s status as one of today’s most fearless yet majestically understated guitar stylists.

In some ways, When You Wish Upon a Star can be seen as an extension of Frisell’s love of vintage Americana, an inspiration so wonderfully expressed on such past albums as Nashville and Beautiful Dreamers. That explains the merry clang the guitarist summons during the Bonanza theme, a tune that varies not in its clarion call lyricism and Western-informed joy, but in the stampeding rhythm section of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. The same spirit propels the album-closing Happy Trails, the classic sendoff anthem that, with Petra Haden’s multi-tracked vocals and the wiry slo-poke strut of Frisell’s guitarwork, sounds more like a serenade by Mary Ford or the Andrew Sisters than a saddle chat with Roy Rogers.

By combining the two ensemble settings that pervade the majority of his recordings – jazz combo and progressive string quartet/quintet – and then opening the scope of his repertoire to include the global reach of Hollywood, Frisell has stretched his Americana highway into infinity.

Take for instance, a reimagining of the theme to the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. With Haden taking over the vocal lead established initially by Nancy Sinatra and Kang modestly establishing the tune’s Asian undercurrent, Frisell creates a portrait of vintage cinematic splendor where he is as much a spectator (in terms of how much room he lends to his bandmates) as a leader.

In perhaps its most masterful strokes, When You Wish Upon a Star juggles extremes. A nine minute medley of themes Nino Rota composed for The Godfather is pure wonder – a mix of gypsy flourishes, jagged guitar torrents, a strong noir undercurrent and a rhythm section whose restlessness beautifully intrudes on the music until it settles under a groove by Frisell and Kang during the closing love theme.

The other extreme is measured by When You Wish Upon a Star’s title song in an arrangement that correctly reveres an inherent innocence enough to ultimately utilize it as a lullaby-like admission to the album’s inward celebration of Hollywood past.

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