“Some say I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth
But you know I paid some dues
Born to play the guitar all around the world
Born to sing these blues.”
Eric Bibb is as close to a bone fide blues legend as you will find touring today. Now well into his 60s, Bibb continues to tour and record at a phenomenal rate with his current album Global Griot following hot on the heels of 2017’s critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated Migration Blues. Bibb’s story is that of a child prodigy – first guitar at age 7, taking advice from Bob Dylan by age 11, performing from age 16. He has travelled and lived in both America and Europe which has shaped his sound beyond the confines of straight forward blues playing.
Tonight’s support is local singer-songwriter Ken Haddock. Anyone who goes to see live music in Belfast will know Ken and will undoubtedly have seen him play before. Ken has a new live album in the works (One Night In Willowfield) and it’s due for release this side of Christmas. It has to be said that hearing his voice fill the Grand Opera House was well worth turning up early; “It Ain’t Over Yet” and “The Sweetest Hour” showcase his talents and are played tonight with a real warmth and depth.
The choice of two covers was interesting. “The House Where Nobody Lives” isn’t one of Tom Waits’ better-known songs but Haddock breathes new life into the song through his heartfelt delivery. The slightly better known “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell probably holds the record for “most covered song” in the history of popular music, but again, Haddock brings something new and original to the song through a combination of his vocal delivery and his ability to coax some beautiful sustained, ringing notes from his guitar.
As Bibb takes the stage I’m immediately struck by how fresh he looks for a man his age. He sits (as do the rest of the band) and introduces the autobiographical “Silver Spoon” which sets the tone for the evening – a really smooth sound with Bibb picking an acoustic guitar and an excellent band providing the backing.
Paul Robinson on drums was superb; he spent 20 years touring with Nina Simone which speaks volumes for his ability. The more low-brow amongst us will also be interested in the fact that he provided drums on “Video Killed The Radio Star” and The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles.” He’s also pretty versatile.
On bass, Neville Malcolm is understated but never misses a beat and he makes playing look effortless. Steffan Astner plays lead guitar and is simply fantastic – he plays with clarity and power but never overwhelms Bibb’s acoustic guitar.
There’s a great range in Bibb’s set; early on a couple of more country-style numbers that sound so easy and laid back that the audience are clapping along before they know it.The gentle blues of the currently unrecorded “When All Is Said And Done” sees Bibb give some wise advice to his children, and elsewhere there is plenty of room for some traditional, no-nonsense twelve-bar blues with Astner laying down some intricate lead breaks.
While the show starts in a pretty upbeat way, the venue is completely hushed when Bib stands alone and sings “Refugee Moan” a cappella. Bibb dedicates this beautiful gospel number to all those in the world seeking a safe place to live.
After a short and lively instrumental tune, Bibb is joined on stage by his wife Ulrika who takes the vocal duties on “Maybe I’ll Hear From You” from the couple’s recent album Pray Sing Love.
There’s a spot of authentic travelling blues with a historical narrative on the track “With A Dolla’ In My Pocket” and some jazz on the old spiritual “Hold On.” The classic “I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger” sounds wonderful with a walking bass line provided by Neville Malcolm.
After a spot of banter with the audience, Bibb finishes on a rollicking version of “Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” before returning to play two encores – the slow and soulful “For You” and the simple and uplifting “Mole In The Ground.”
This evening was another piece of inspired programming by the Belfast International Arts Festival, following a knock-out show by Angelique Kidjo the night before. Bibb mixes classic blues with country, folk and jazz influences, to fashion a sound that is hugely accessible and very easy to listen to. He brings a warmth and genuine like-ability to his shows, and with the musicians he has touring with him, it’s simply a great way to spend an evening. This was the last show of his current tour, with Bibb noting that he is now heading for a well-earned two-month break.
I hope he’s back on the road and back in Belfast soon.