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.