If Eric Bibb was any mellower, he'd just be a puddle of quiverin' jam. But Bibb is in no danger of melting. Despite his laid-back manner and delivery, he's got plenty of backbone to keep him upright and steadfast in his lifelong quest to perform and promote traditional blues and well as adding his own timeless originals to the blues lexicon. In order to accomplish that, Bibb has developed what he calls split vision- keeping traditional music in his work, but not covering up his personal need to express his unique sense of who he is. “African–American music has been cross-pollinated into folk music everywhere but the marketplace," Bibb believes. “And that’s one of my pet missions, to break it down.”
His latest project teams him up with French harpist JJ(Jean-Jacques) Milteau on a tribute to folk pioneer Leadbelly, who Bibb dubs “a human jukebox.” Recorded live at The Sunset jazz club in Paris and augmented with some new studio tracks, the duo present a 16 cut tribute to Huddie Ledbetter. Pardoned by two governors for attempted murder, the convict known as Leadbelly sang his way out of prison in the '30s into the hearts and minds and of the American people as the first and most famous African American folk singer.
Bibb doesn't need to prove anything with anybody. He could sing an Arby's menu and make it sound good. But Milteau is a tasteful accompanist, a good fit for Bibb, never stepping on his toes or overblowing. Like a well-tailored overcoat, he keeps Bibb covered without confining him.
Milteau has a couple of Victoire de la Musique awards, the French equivalent of a Grammy, on his shelves, one for '92's Explorer, and another for '01's Memphis, recorded at legendary Al Green producer Willie Mitchell's studio featuring Little Milton, Sam McClain and Mighty Mo Rodgers and Andrew Love on sax, who with trumpeter Wayne Jackson made up the legendary Memphis horns.
Milteau gets a zydeco feel on “Midnight Special,” his harp sounding like an accordion. Bibb is way out of his mellow groove on this one, roaring like Clifton Chenier on a hot night in a bayou juke.
Bibb's take on “House Of the Rising Sun” restores his mellow, but there's still plenty of backbone in this version that recalls legendary folksinger Josh White, who recorded a show with Leadbelly at the Village Vanguard in the '40s, while Milteau does a Toots Thielelmans harp interpretation as accompaniment.
Sonny Terry and Brownie's blistering version of “Rock Island Line” is a hard act to follow. But Bibb manages to derail it with a rockin' version that has plenty of grit in the vocals with Milteau howlin' like a busted boiler as the tune rockets down the track.
“Goodnight Irene” has been covered by a bevy of artists from the Weavers to Frank Sinatra to Keith Richards, with Ry Cooder delivering a wistful, soulful cover on '76's Chicken Skin Music. But Bibb takes it to a whole 'nother level. In his hands it's a hymn, a mournful dirge for a man who's so confounded by his infatuation he just wants to jump in the river and drown.
Bibb converts “Bourgeous Blues” from Leadbelly's talking blues format on the original to a smooth glide, but the powerful message of intolerance and racism still packs a punch that not even Bibb's mellow delivery can blunt.
“I’m no longer in the striving mode so much,” Bibb told me in an interview a few years ago. “People like what I do and I need to keep on doing what I’m doing.” That's about as good a review as a man can give himself. His work on Lead Belly's Gold backs that up, proving once again that as always, Eric Bibb is as good as his word.