Eric Bibb with Michael Jerome Browne, at Hugh’s Room
Eric Bibb is a wonder. He’s 64 years old and looks two decades younger, as slim, stylish and handsome as ever; he’s been working professionally for going on 50 years and still tours relentlessly and apparently tirelessly; his dynamic but ever-so-friendly stage presence continues to charm and seduce; he’s received career advice from Bob Dylan at the age of 11 and has worked with pretty much all the biggest names in the American and European folk and blues worlds; and he remains one of the very best acoustic blues artists that there is.
So it was with some excitement that I saw Eric was coming to Toronto, and playing at one of my favorite venues, Hugh’s Room. Not only that, but he was going to be accompanied by Michael Jerome Browne, the ace guitarist whose recent opus Sliding Delta has been a regular on my current playlists. And as it turned out, despite it being a sold out show and despite being a singleton who was just going to drink and watch and not eat, I got put into a shared table right by the stage. Karma!
Hugh’s does not believe in brilliant stage lighting, nor in making the room beyond the stage inky black. It’s a table service kind of place, and while food delivery is suspended during the performance, drinks continue to be ordered and delivered, in a reasonably hushed and respectful manner when the act deserves that.
So when Eric and Michael took to their seats on the stage, Eric was able to look out into the audience without being blinded by the lights, and actually see the throng. “I don’t remember this many people last time I played here”, he said. “Of course that was a long time ago. I’ll have to come back sooner”. This to great applause and raucous shouts. And then it was right into as accomplished, fiery and melodic a set as you are likely to see.
I say “fiery”, which is not a word often associated with Eric Bibb. His intricate and effective guitar work is seldom overtly flashy, and his beautifully mellow voice allows the lyrics to glide effortlessly over the guitar, with vocal phrases neatly highlighted, and instrumental runs allowed to shine. But live and in person you can see oh so clearly the passion and intensity that he brings to the music, to the history of the blues and to the subjects of his songs.
Michael Jerome Browne provided the perfect accompaniment and occasional vocal harmonies, pushing Eric towards virtuosity, and being pushed right back. He mainly played conventional six string, but his occasional forays into slide and twelve string were wonderful, and he was given just the right amount of space to shine.
The two sets included lots of music from Eric’s catalogue, with particular emphasis on his recent Blues People CD, a collaboration with many prominent blues people, and from his most recent partly-live recording with J.J. Milteau, the wonderful Lead Belly’s Gold. Among the highlights for me were two numbers from Blues People that evoked emotion for Eric during his introductions: “Turner Station”, one of the more poignant leave-the-land-and-go-to-the-factory songs that I’ve heard; and “Rosewood”, which documents the massacre of the inhabitants of Rosewood, Florida and the complete destruction of their town in the early part of the 20th Century, as actually recalled many years later by one of the survivors. Recent tragic events were not far from consciousness.
But let’s be clear – it wasn’t all doom and gloom, and there were many uplifting and raucous celebrations, epitomized by the performance of Harrison Kennedy when he joined the duo for one number. Kennedy is a blues and soul guy, prominent as a member of the sixties soul supergroup Chairmen Of The Board, who often performs with Ruthie Foster these days. He duetted with Foster on Blues People’s “Dream Catchers”, and his delivery here, on part of “Needed Time”, backed by Eric and Michael, was incendiary and joyful.
It’s really great that we have the kind of venue that give us access to such great performances, without tipping too far into reverential presentation. Hugh’s Room strikes just the right balance, allowing for real exchange between audience and performer while ensuring just the right amount of respectful distance.
Of course, if the performer doesn’t deserve respect things can get a bit brutal. But Eric Bibb and Michael Jerome Browne deserved, and got, a full measure of enthusiastic respect.
See a YouTube video of Needed Time, part of the concert, here.