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elliehughes
6th June 2023

Eric Bibb at The Stoller Hall: funky, groovy, hopeful

Blues hero Eric Bibb returns to Manchester, performing a career-spanning set at The Stoller Hall.
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Eric Bibb at The Stoller Hall: funky, groovy, hopeful
Eric Bibb. Photo by Ellie Hughes

Eric Bibb sits on the stage of the intimate Stoller Hall in Manchester in a signature spiffy grey suit and a wide-brimmed hat. The audience is engrossed as he explains that the concept of his new album, Ridin’, was inspired by the 1862 painting A Ride for Liberty by Eastman Johnson.

The oil painting depicts the dramatic moment an African American family flees the chattel slavery of the South on horseback heading for the safety of Union lines. However, as Bibb reminds us, this freedom would prove slippery. At that moment, the superficial boundaries of racism in the United States of America were simply rearranged rather than lifted, and the battle for true liberation continues today.

Support has been provided by Michael Jerome Browne, an unassuming but highly accomplished multi-instrumentalist from Montreal, who opened the show with his guitar, harmonica and 200-year-old banjo in a roots-inspired traditional set dipped heavily in blues and folk. Browne also appears later in the show on guitar in Bibb’s band.

Eric Bibb. Photo by Ellie Hughes.

Bibb appears relaxed but serious as he thoughtfully introduces each song. He works his way through new material from Ridin’ and crowd-pleasing classics such as ‘Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down’ and his version of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Goin’ Down Slow’. He picks songs from the new album that exemplify his knack of fusing the comforting tradition of country blues polyrhythms and fingerstyle technique with vibrant and sometimes disturbing storytelling. The stories unfurl theatrically, but they are all true. He unmasks the grotesque nature of historic events such as the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 which erased a whole community, and he shines a light on the controversial story of John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who, in 1959, darkened his skin in order to travel through the segregated Jim Crow South as a Black man and “experience discrimination based on skin colour, something over which one has no control.”

Eric Bibb. Photo by Ellie Hughes.

Ridin’ boasts an impressive line-up of guests such as Habib Koite, Taj Mahal, and Russell Malone. It was produced by Glen Scott, a British musician who joins Bibb on the tour as drummer. One of the standout elements of the album is the gorgeous backing vocals which have been partly reassembled for the tour by members of Bibb’s band who are sometimes joined by his wife, Ulrika. Bibb says, “…we’ve created a concept album focusing on the ongoing task of understanding systemic racism and purging it from our world.” But he adds, “For all its seriousness, Ridin’ is a funky, groovy, hopeful collection of songs.”

The sparse sound of a live show is the reality faced by many touring bands from within those genres located at the fringes of the mainstream. However, thanks to its modest size and its state-of-the-art sound-diffusing oak panels, this subtlety lends itself perfectly to the acoustics of the 482-capacity Stoller Hall. At times, the room amplifies a cry from Bibb’s guitar for a break from his impeccable and controlled style in favour of a heavier, more rampageous hand as rugged as his subject matter. The response comes from Bibb himself whose voice breaks and rasps at all the right moments, revealing a deep emotional accord with his songs.

Eric Bibb. Photo by Ellie Hughes

One guilty pleasure of going to see an internationally-renowned veteran of the blues like Eric Bibb is that you have a good idea of what to expect. The evening promised what I occasionally, sheepishly, crave: the holy trinity of a comfortable seat, a queueless women’s toilet, and a quiet, well-behaved audience. However, several unexpected interruptions and even a stage-crash – met with a charismatic response from Bibb and swiftly managed by ushers – came from one overexcited fan whose joy and delight in the set was charming enough that she was quickly forgiven.

Bibb, now with tens of albums in his towering back catalogue and two Grammy Award nominations, has an energetic presence that belies his 71 years. He speaks with a warm tone about the need for understanding and unity without a hint of triteness; perhaps a hangover from his days as a New York native, Bibb is direct, both as a speaker and a songwriter. In addition, despite the vast distance between his home country and where he now lives in Sweden, he remains deeply connected to American politics, and to his ancestors. Indeed, his last two albums have explicitly addressed issues of populist politics and inequality, and his father, the late Leon Bibb, was an activist, actor, and folk singer who marched at Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King. Blues has always been used to reflect the highs and lows of the human condition, and despite its heavy reliance on euphemism and the abundance of academia that would suggest otherwise, it seldom requires much interpretation. Bibb ambles down this well-trodden path, perfectly and directly articulating the middle ground between struggle and hope.

Eric Bibb. Photo by Ellie Hughes

 

Ellie

Ellie

Sub-Editor for the Mancunian

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