Taking His Time

Be it his folk-blues amiability or his pervasive wide-brimmed hats, Eric Bibb favors Taj Mahal. His voice is less basso and gravelly (more reminiscent of Spearhead’s Michael Franti), and his musical palette less diverse and worldly than Mahal’s ’round the globe hybrids, but Bibb is the superior songwriter. The latest evidence of this can be found on Get Onboard, his 17th disc since 1997 (!), which uses his typical template of social consciousness writ intimately personal with a dollop of religiosity (and not in the pejorative sense) and, most importantly, a guileless generosity of spirit.

My favorite track is "River Blues," which comes equipped with strings (a cellist and another on violin and viola) and a rhythm section yet feels remarkably simple and unadorned. Bibb’s gone down to the flowing waterfront to clear his head. He’ll stay all day, watching the leaves turn gold, patiently biding the hours until the emotional fallout from the spat with his lady ebbs.

I don’t feel like talkin’/Got nothin’ to say–please don’t preach/Sometimes we can agree to disagree/My mind’s actin’ like a screen/Don’t wanna say something unkind/I don’t mean

The delivery neatly conflates the temporary exasperation of the situation with the permanence of his love for her–this is a distinctively minor drama, dangerous mostly in its capacity to lose perspective, and Bibb’s water walk ensures that won’t happen. He lets it drop that the spat is over him not spending enough time with her, a theme that is picked up two songs later, in "Conversation," a vocal duet with Ruthie Foster. A delightful mixture of plaintive blues and canoodling love song, it has her stating she misses his company, him replying that he knows but they both know they need the dough he earns, her saying she doesn’t need palm trees or exotic locales, just him around. He draws up the conclusion:

We could pack a picnic every evenin//Spread a blanket in the park/Have a picnic by the river/On a blanket in the park/Watch the sun set over Hoboken/Be back in bed before it’s dark.

The relationship between "River Blues" and "Conversation" is artfully designed, subtle yet unmistakeable, with a message of compassion through patience and restraint that’s usually very difficult to relate without perverting the message itself. Another delicate grace note is the fact that the songs are intersected by "Deep In My Soul" and tagged by "God’s Kingdom,’ both with the theme of strength through devotion in a higher power. Now I’m not an overtly religious guy, and I certainly don’t like to be bludgeoned by how other people perceive the value of faith. And this particular gambit still won me over.

The undercurrent running through Get Onboard contains a similar wisdom about when to double-down on your emotional (and spiritual) investment and when to be pliable. The lead track announces the refrain, "I live for the spirit I am" ("Spirit I Am" is its title) and the finale, "Stayed On Freedom,’ cribs a Civil Rights anthem which itself was adapted from a spiritual.

With so much material to draw upon, who knows what Bibb will include in his sets this evening at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant? But if you’re looking to mellow out with sustenance that’s at once spiritual, intelligent, and romantic, this is your ticket.