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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Bloomsbury Theatre, London, May 10th 2010

Eric Bibb


I decided that I had better look up the meaning of ‘nice’ in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and was surprised to learn that it had so many meanings, ranging from ‘tender’, through ‘stupid’, ‘trivial’ and ‘coy’.  Of course it’s the colloquial meaning that we all think of, which is ‘agreeable’, or ‘delightful’.  Fellow Whiskyfun Reviewer and sometime whisky expert Dave Broom hates me using the word when I’m tasting Scotland’s midnight wine, but sometimes it sums things up perfectly.

Think of a pleasant May evening in leafy Bloomsbury, one of the very nicest parts of London (where I used to work, but that’s a different matter altogether), and home of course, to Virginia Woolf and her famous Bloomsbury Group.  To be honest I’ve never thought of Virginia as being particularly nice, more like hopelessly self-obsessed and a ghastly middle-class snob (like most of those people who still adore her and her circle I suspect), but that doesn’t detract from the niceness of the place, with University College London, the dissenting Dr William’s Library, and at one time the wonderful Courtauld Institute all close to hand.  And I should not forget the Bloomsbury Theatre, true a building of indifferent architectural merit, but one of the nicest theatres in London with a broad range of shows appealing to a wide cross-section of audiences, and one of the few (albeit occasional) music venues to sell both fruit gums and fruit pastilles, both as nice an example of traditional English confectionery you could wish for.  As you struggle along the rows to find your place the audience are terribly nice and accommodating, helpfully moving their walking sticks and Zimmer frames, to allow one to pass.  And the folks sitting in our seats are so nice, that once they’ve moved we become the best of friends, exchange addresses for Christmas cards, and even talk seriously of the possibility of a shared camping holiday in Tenby.

Eric Bibb

Support artist Megan Henwood was very nice, with a nice turn of phrase in her songs, described in a Guardian review as “Pure and simple. Innocent and good’; very nice in other words.  But the nice and polite audience don’t pay her enough heed as they wait for Eric Bibb, who it turns out is one of the nicest blues guitarists on the planet.  Mr Bibb, from a relatively privileged musical background, finally found the blues when he was travelling in Europe, various nice parts of which he’s made his home over the past couple of decades. 

He has a wonderfully fluid and apparently effortless guitar style, but not lacking in attack.  In fact part of the niceness of his sound comes from the ferocity with which he addresses the strings.  Another interesting thing is that every now and again his blues playing is infiltrated by nice touches and flourishes in the style of the great British folk guitarists of the sixties and seventies (and in some cases, I’m very glad to say, the two thousand and tenties) , such as John Martyn or Bert Jansch, giving it a very cosmopolitan feel.  His voice is nice, full and strong, whether he’s singing with a gusto that matches his guitar work, or chatting, which he does nicely between songs.

He may as well be talking to a room full of nice friends, as the audience are clearly mostly devotees, with an extensive knowledge of Mr Bibb’s catalogue.  Bravely he gave  them a few old songs, thanked them for their nice loyalty, but then went on to focus on material from his very nice new album,  Booker’s Guitar, inspired by an opportunity he had to play the guitar of Delta slide-guitar legend Bukka (or properly Booker) White.  I’m not sure how nice Mr White was; he did of course, famously serve time in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm prison, which he celebrated in song (“Judge give me life this mornin' down on Parchman Farm”).  He was committed for life for murder, although he actually served only a couple of years, which, given the conditions in the jail, has to be considered a nice outcome. 

Grant Dermody
Grant Dermody

But nasty or nice the chance encounter with Bukka White’s guitar has inspired Mr Bibb to write some thoroughly nice songs, which he performs with the very nice harmonica accompaniment of Grant Dermody.  He plays the title tune on a nice steel guitar, and we also hear ‘Walking blues again’ (“I like writing new songs that sound like old songs.  One way to do this is nick the title and add one word”), ‘New Home’, ‘Flood water’ (where the Jansch influence was nicely evident), ‘Tell Riley’ (about White’s cousin B B King – “Tell Riley he’s welcome to stay, mark my words he’ll be big one day”), the traditional hymn, ‘Wayfaring stranger’, ‘New home’ (“bought my own forty acres, my own mule an’ breakin’ plough”) and  ‘With my maker I am one’, an intriguing collection of opposites (“I am the preacher, shoutin’ out the news, I am the juke stomper,  playin’ the blues”). 

And then, to the delight of the audience, he ended the show with a jolly nice singalong, as if Bloomsbury had met with Blissdale Mississippi, if you will.

It was a thoroughly nice evening, and Mr Bibb’s playing and singing was as nice as nice can be.  I just couldn’t help thinking that ‘nice’ wasn’t what got Charley Patton, or Robert Johnson, or Muddy Waters, or the diabolical Sonny Boy Williamson II into the blues hall of fame.  It was their flaws that filled their personalities with colour, their work with resonance, just like the flaws that gave Bukka White his life sentence in Parchman Farm. Somehow, or so it seems to me, you need something more than niceness, no matter how considerable your accomplishments. – Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Listen: Eric Bibb on myspace (nice!)

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