Liberated blues

Grammy-nominated bluesman Eric Bibb comes to Chico for solo gig

NEW WORLD BLUES Well-traveled Eric Bibb mixes music from around the world with his own brand of the blues.

NEW WORLD BLUES Well-traveled Eric Bibb mixes music from around the world with his own brand of the blues.

Courtesy Of Folklore Productions

North Valley Productions presents: An evening with Eric BibbChico Women’s Club, Thurs., June 23, 8 p.m. (doors, 7 p.m.) Tickets: $17/advance; $19/door www.chicotickets .com; 345-8136

Play a track off of any of Eric Bibb’s CDs, and you are instantly mesmerized by his amazing tenor. His voice fills the air, as if two or three octaves of tenor are harmonizing at once—one part smoky, one part honeyed and one part road gritty. His hands, too, are soft, gliding from one chord to the next with casual precision. If David Gilmour played the blues, he’d probably sound a lot like Eric Bibb.

But Bibb’s blues possesses a style that’s all his own, pulling on a lifetime of influences felt from growing up in New York City and traveling the world to living at his current address, somewhere in England. What gives? Born in New York, living in London, yet playing blues rooted in the American South. Bibb’s blending of blues with a contemporary sensibility has been called “new world blues.”

“You can find blues in the Philippines,” Bibb exclaimed from Sweden (it took some doing, but that’s where I caught up with him). “There’s a universal language in its creation; it captures a certain time and a certain place that people around the world relate to. Centuries of African-American oppression certainly have parallels in today’s world system.”

Bibb admits that, as it was for many of the jazz and blues artists of the 1920s and 1930s, living abroad has certain advantages. “It’s like looking back and rediscovering who you are, yet you’re free of all that cultural baggage,” he explained. “It’s really quite liberating.”

And that’s the best way to describe Eric Bibb: He plays “liberated” blues. Listen close and you can hear tinges of Indian and Gypsy-folk and Malian music. I get this picture of an American blues man exposed to the world music scene kicking back in London and thinking, “Oh, I like that, and a little of this; let me see how I can integrate it into my form of the blues.”

“But it’s really not so random,” declares Bibb. “Yeah, living abroad gives me good exposure to world music, but I’ve been playing with kora music from Mali since I was 14.”

Eric’s dad Leon Bibb (‘60s folks singer and television personality) was a pretty famous musician himself, and when he traveled, he toted young Eric around. “I thank my dad for taking me with him on some of his overseas travels,” Bibb said. “I mean, I turned 13 in Kiev, in the old Soviet Union.”

As the 1960s unfolded, Bibb attended Harlem’s High School of Music and Art, which not only gave him the opportunity to meet and jam with classmates such as Janis Ian, but also influenced him in a way that only the 1960s could do. In a decade filled with experimentation, the big-city music school was coming in contact with instruments from every corner of the globe, and each was being checked out and experimented with.

I asked Bibb, sort of sideways, about 9/11—after all, Manhattan was once his home, and his overseas residency might have lent some sort of insight, a way of looking at it that I hadn’t thought about.

“Let’s just say,” said Bibb, “that I’m still thinking about it. But what’s really come up out of me about the whole thing is that I have to send out some sort of message about hope and unity.”

It just so happens that Bibb’s next CD will be entitled, A Ship Called Love. Love à la the 1960s? Or love as is needed now more than ever in a post 9/11 world?

“I have to say what I feel,” said Bibb earnestly. “[The CD’s] about speaking my mind, revealing my heart. I feel I’ve earned it, earned the right to say, ‘Don’t give up.’ Don’t give up on the blues, on the world; that everywhere there’s this underlining of hope.”