August 26, 2021

I don’t know about you, but I love it when unfashionable genres of music are revived and gain popularity with a new generation. We have already seen the resurgence of prog, long dismissed as a dinosaur genre or outrageously pompous, closely followed by the resurrection of the concept album, which had been considered anathema for several years before Ayreon and others breathed new life into it. But when was the last time you heard a full-on protest album?

The Woodstock era saw artists such as Arlo Guthrie leading campaigns against the Vietnam war, while the hippies breathed love and flowers into every subject of dissent. Now the master of acoustic blues-folk, New Yorker Eric Bibb, has released a gently delivered, but heartfelt diatribe as he reaches his 70th birthday. His targets are racial segregation, abuse of women, legal corruption and the social deterioration of his beloved nation: “Dear America,” he intones, “my name’s a part of yours.” His stripped-down acoustic fingerpicking style gives the lyrics room to breathe and hit home, while a roster of guest appearances add variation and texture to this 50-minute set.

Wisely though, he opts to start with a joyous celebration of life, Whole Lotta Lovin’, featuring acoustic upright bassist Ron Carter, a veteran in his mid-eighties. Subtle and uplifting, happy and thankful, Bibb even inserts a spontaneous chuckle towards the end. After that though, young gospel singer Shaneeka Simon duets on Born Of A Woman, a defiant social commentary bemoaning the vulnerability of womankind to domestic abuse, and their relative lack of protection under law.

Whole World’s Got The Blues is presented as a chain-gang blues, starting with a spoken Martin Luther King quote, followed by a general lament about the global state of things featuring electric guitar work from the excellent Eric Gales. The title track Dear America focusses the spotlight on the USA though, which holds itself up as the bastion of the free world, while failing to protect its own citizens from oppression and persecution.

Different Picture references specific incidents of social unrest in LA and Chicago, and features some great, distorted rock soloing on a pedal steel guitar of all things, from Chuck Campbell. This is followed by the misleadingly jaunty picking of Tell Yourself, which reveals yet more social suffering – but probably the hardest-hitting number is Emmett’s Ghost, again featuring bassist Ron Carter. It recounts the shock and horror Bibb felt when finding out about the grisly murder of a 14-year-old black boy named Emmet Till in Money, Mississippi in 1955. The event, and the fact that Till’s killers walked free, is still a grimy stain on US history and is rightly highlighted by any project on racism. Bibb was four years old at the time of the crime, lived in a different state and was not connected with the family in any way, but it clearly hits him hard even now.

This is followed by a piece named White And Black, this time in 3-4 time, in which Bibb holds up his hands and admits that we are all subject to the kind of indoctrination that makes us judge people at first sight, simply because of the way they look. We are then granted some welcome relief with an upbeat, jolly number named Along The Way, which exhorts people to progress, achieve what they can, and move on with their lives.

So far, blues content has been sparse in the folky commentary, but the next number introduces a deep south, railroad blues vibe with some utterly superb harp playing from Billy Branch, another octogenarian virtuoso. Talkin’ ‘Bout A Train pt.1 starts in vintage lo-fi, then explodes centre stage on the second verse. An authentic hobo blues on one chord, this rolling juggernaut made my day, especially Branch’s wailing harp. The number kind of fizzles out, as if they meant to add a fade-out but decided against it, before Talkin’ ‘Bout A Train pt.2 comes in – an apparently unrelated number, it’s a jazzy, funky piece with some horn stabs, great, fluid female backing vocals, and some groovy drumming. It offers a much fuller sound than anything up to this point, but the next number is the first real full-band experience, featuring electric bassist Tommy Sims and organist Glen Scott, who also produced Bibb’s award-winning 2013 album Jericho Road. Stevie Wonder and Jamiroquai are the obvious references here, and then the minimal, acoustic ambience is restored with the final song, the cuddly One-ness Of Love, featuring more gospel-style vocals from Lisa Mills.

Bibb’s fingerpicking style is clear, melodious and flawless, and his smooth, smoky voice is a joy. The musicianship on this set is tremendous, and the production second to none, but of course much of the content is hard to bear. It’s a sad indictment of the world we live in that a respected veteran such as Bibb still feels the need to perform such grim judgments on modern life. But if a job needs doing, someone’s gotta to do it, and Eric Bibb does it better than most.