Eric Bibb – Tuning Fork: May 9, 2024 (13th Floor Concert Review)

Three acoustic guitars surround one chair on stage. Just after 8pm, Eric Bibb walks through the crowd and up onto the stage. Tall, loose pants, straw hat, wide smile.  No need for an opening act. The crowd mostly in their 60s are clearly only here for one man.

‘Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie’ is the opener. Immediately his style is evident. Guitar picking that’s so complex and engaging the strings seem to talk. And a singing style that’s almost spoken voice at times.

In a 13th Floor interview, Bibb remarked on how the US has never been “my major territory”. Instead Scandinavia, Europe and Australia are more fertile grounds for his followers. From tonight, clearly Aotearoa too. The Tuning Fork is all seated and sold out.

Eric BibbBased in Stockholm most of his adult life has given Bibb a vantage point from which to reflect on his homeland. “America’s always having to deal with a brutal past” he said.

Though born in New York, the American South looms large in his songs. ‘Going down the Road Feeling Bad’ speaks of corn bread and peas; culinary reference to Mississippi, ground zero for the Blues. ‘New Home’ is dedicated to “all the heroes and sheroes” consigned to one side of the train tracks in many a town. He references the injustice of it all with, those who live on the poor side “drinking water like turpentine”.

Bibb’s stage presence has warmth for a cold night. “This is the Tuning Fork, so I’m going to take my time tuning”, he says. “Tuning’s a bit like airplane maintenance; always worth it”. He’s captivating to watch.

Bibb does what must be the most moving a man can do sitting down. One leg bounces up and down like a rhythmic metronome. He smiles, he tosses his head. He moves not so much with but into his music.

Eric Bibb

We get autobiography with ‘Silver Spoon’, singing of his move to Scandinavia and finding belonging there “I made my home/In the North Country Far/At a time when very few people there/Looked like me”.

It’s this sense of story, as well as his astonishing guitar playing, that make Bibb’s songs so captivating. We hear of his grandma from Albuquerque who bakes the young Eric pies on request; and the angry young man in Mississippi who lets loose with intemperate words to his boss so needs to leave, and heads north, guitar in hand, to Chicago.  Songs that are short stories. Windows into social history.

With My Maker I am One (“My most streamed song”) he name-checks a multitude of identities. Its as if he’s saying we can pose and pretend as much as we like. But its only in being real we are one with our maker. With a Eric Bibbhypnotising repetitive strum, he lays out core themes of his genre: the spiritual quest and moving on.  Allusions here to Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming.

And trains get referenced a lot tonight. Ridin’ , for instance, is dedicated to students from New York who bravely rode south by rail to support the civil rights of African-Americans.

History lives on through the singing of songs, says Bibb, in ways stronger than the pages of history books. They can just get ripped out over time. Ka pai someone in the audience responds. Mr Bibb is a truth teller with wisdom for this land and these times too.

It’s not all blues though.  Along the Way, written for his children, has the sweetness and lilting nature of a James Taylor song, exhorting his kids to ‘Take the time to give yourself a pat on the back for coming this far’. Songs of empathy, simplicity and humanity.

One man and three acoustic guitars. Not the high-octane, roughly hewn blues of the Delta or Chicago. But a gentle, beautiful but at times confronting blues delivered with a smile. America through the lens of Sweden. Blues as music of, and for, the world.

Robin Kearns

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