Eric Bibb has family ties stemming from the 60s folk and jazz scenes, running parallel with those there are connections with social activists of the times. His own interests being pre-World War II blues, and this has led to him securing two Grammy Award nominations thus far. An interest in the past is all well and good if we can learn something from it, beyond tales of kings and conquests. With new album Ridin’, Bibbs sets himself that always unenviable task, his studies in African American history being his inspiration while further reflecting on current world events via his own lived experiences.
“As a songwriter, studying the true stories of my ancestors and their communities are at the heart of many of the songs on my new album,” Bibb has declared. “Together with co-writer/producer Glen Scott we’ve created a concept album focusing on the ongoing task of understanding systemic racism and purging it from our world.” A worthy goal, that we won’t argue, how successful we’ll see.
Across the breadth of Ridin’ it’s rhythm that is the overriding musical principle at work, melody secondary and often as bare instrumentation delicately delineating the songs being sung.
The record begins with ‘Family’, sung as if incantation round an open fire, choral gospel chanting voices, evoking spirits past and present in unification. As its title suggests, with ‘Ridin’’ things gather pace, initially one pictures the singer saddled on a horse drifting out of town, though lyrically we find metaphorically “we’re ridin on a freedom train”.
Beyond the obvious lyricisms, I’ve been more attuned nodding my head while going about my business thus far, but with ‘Blues Funky Like Dat’, guest featuring both Taj Mahal and Jontavious Willis, banjo present with a country blues ditty picked out, harmonica blowing in, and a tune we can get our handle round as vocals apparently shared, alongside some John Lee Hooker imitative howls. Acoustic guitar to the fore for the ragtime jazz groove of ‘The Ballad of John Howard Griffin’, that’s the catchiest number while relating the tale of the writer who championed black equality in his work.
Folk staple, ‘500 Miles’ finds Bibbs in deeper voice and much more affecting in his delivery, drawing the listener in, as a violin plays like spectral spirit in the background. Rhythms literally running to escape from the 1920s racial murders journalese revealed in ‘Tulsa Town’. ‘Onwards (Interlude)’ continues the previous number’s instrumentation, as instrumental, alongside what appears to be a shimmering slide guitar in a more passive cruising mode.
‘Hold The Line’ picks out jazz, affects a contemporary R ‘n B vibe, and comes across in a gently drifting singer/songwriter lullaby manner. ‘I Got My Own’ is more familiar country blues territory, but there’s some nicely effective electric guitar at work here too, shorn of amplification is the proud-to-be-black ‘Call Me By My Name’ that strikes just the right attitude. African rhythms, close female harmonies, and mellow rap enunciates the names of those lynched on the oddly gentle ‘Joybells’.
‘Sinner Man’ is apparently recorded live at the Wheatland Festival, a little distanced distortion the only real indication, with more going on percussively here and a welcome return of violin, but the lack of strong melodies can become a little weary, thus the nimble-fingered guitar on ‘Free’, alongside added Mailian vocals from Habib Koité are welcomed, as is piano, guitar and violin for ‘People You Love’ to round themes out, reaching conclusion with another instrumental in ‘Church Bells (Interlude)’.
Mood music, that’s more feel than groove. Broadly meditations, some inspirational, all relevantly thoughtful. Overall though, an album that you need to play several times to appreciate its intent.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Ridin’ is released via Repute Records and is available form here.
- Official Website
- Blues Funky Like Dat (featuring Taj Mahal & Jontavious Willis)
- The Ballad of John Howard Griffin (featuring Russell Malone)
- 500 Miles
- Tulsa Town
- Onwards (Interlude)
- Hold The Line (featuring Russell Malone)
- I Got My Own (featuring Amar Sundy)
- Call Me By My Name (featuring Harrison Kennedy)
- Sinner Man with Eric Bibb String Band (Live at Wheatland Festival)
- Free (featuring Habib Koité)
- People You Love
- Church Bells (Interlude)