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Music Review: Eric Bibb – Get Onboard

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He's the son of folk singer Leon Bibb, nephew of Modern Jazz Quartet founder John Lewis, and was directly exposed to several legendary performers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan growing up. It would seem that Eric Bibb was destined to go down a similar path as his father, but it took a while. He was in his mid-forties when he finally put aside songwriting and music teaching for others long enough to record his own records about twelve years ago. Since then, he's been recording and performing seemingly non-stop, picking up notice slowly but surely.

To me, Eric Bibb has always been like a newer model of Taj Mahal or the debut-album version of Keb Mo: that laid-back, confident folk blues that made few concessions to modern times. Now, I still like Mr. Moore's later records, but they strayed off a bit from his original, humble mission. More than a dozen albums since 1997's Good Stuff, Bibb has remained steadfastly true to the sound of his beginnings. Even when he shared the spotlight with his dad (A Family Affair), Maria Muldar and Rory Block (Sisters & Brothers), or a revolving cast of blues and folk greats (Friends), Bibb has stayed true to himself.

Simply put, Bibb's warm, reassuring voice, gently picked guitar and solid songwriting are hallmarks on every one of his records.

That consistency remains with the release earlier this week of Get Onboard. Bibb's stated mission for this album is "to get people onboard, not only with me as an artist, but with the spirit of what drives this record – the spirit of unity." This falls in line with the message of hope and faith that's found throughout all of Bibb's songs.

Get Onboard gets off on solid footing and doesn't let up. The opening "Spirit I Am," may have a touch of contemporary sounds with a programmed drum track that frankly isn't even perceptible for most of the song. Instead, the things that grab the listener are The Rolling Stones' "Beast Of Burden" rhythm and the impassioned backing vocals that sounds right out a rural Southern church.

The soulful ballad "If Our Hearts Ain't In It" gets a lift from Bonnie Raitt, not with vocals, but her signature slide guitar. The other special guest appearance is by arguably the next "Bonnie Raitt," Ruthie Foster. She lends a co-lead vocal in her Aretha-evoking style to this slow, jazzy blues.

"Pockets" is an irresistible, simple love song with lyrics that flow out naturally:

I got a pocket for my keys, a pocket for my cash

One for my ticket in case I've got to leave town fast
My favorite pocket, you know the one I'm thinking of,
is the pocket in my heart for your love

On "Deep In My Soul," Bibb blends country, gospel, and folk much like the way Hank Williams used to. Bibb is always down for some good old-time style gospel tunes and this time the solemn "God's Kingdom", the knockabout "The Promised Land," and the traditional spiritual "Stayed On Freedom" fill that square just fine.
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The Memphis tribute "New Beale Street Blues" is a dixieland jazz/blues hybrid with a just touch of bluegrass mandolin thrown in. Listening to this, it's easy to place yourself there sixty years ago listening to "Memphis Minnie an' Joe McCoy."

The theme song to this whole collection is, of course, "Get Onboard." Bibb effectively uses the train metaphor as a call for brotherly love, down to the chugging rhythm and the whistle-blowing harmonica.

Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Glen Scott produced Bibb's last two records and he was brought back for Get Onboard. Once again, Scott does a bang-up job of keeping the arrangements spare, placing Bibb's acoustic guitar up front, and capturing the sound clean. Even when he adds strings to Bibb's winsome ballad "River Blues," it's done with discretion and light on the syrup. Scott has also collaborated with Bibb on a few of the original compositions, and it's clear he shares Bibb's musical vision.

There's probably no better practitioner of Americana roots music out there today than Eric Bibb. At least, out of those who aren't a household name. But his relative lack of fame isn't due to a lack of quality, because anyone who hears his music will most likely Get Onboard.

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