Like finding a chunk of gold: Eric Bibb & Michael Jerome Browne @ SFJazz

Eric Bibb. Photo by Pascal Bouclier.

Eric Bibb. Photo by Pascal Bouclier.

So much music and art, so little time. It’s a constant juggling act, and though I see more of it than many people I know, that only makes me more aware of what I’m not seeing and hearing. Then there are artists who completely escape my radar, whom I’ve never heard of, and only learn of by following a recommendation, or sometimes it’s discovery by happenstance. Both occurred this week: on Wednesday night it was discovering the exuberant joy of The Polyphonic Spree gig at Slim’s, and on Thursday I was at the SFJazz Center at a friend’s invitation to catch Maria Muldaur and Eric Bibb. My friend has a professional association with Muldaur, so I’m not going to write much about her performance other than note her voice retains an impressive amount of power and range, displayed in a blues oriented set featuring songs ranging from Bob Dylan to Percy Mayfield.

However, I want to make a point of bringing Eric Bibb to your attention because I was blown away by the man’s talents. The gig was (erroneously) billed as a duets show, but the format had Bibb (with Michael Jerome Browne) and Muldaur performing their own sets, with Bibb and Browne joining Muldaur and her band for a couple of songs at the end of hers. Bibb’s hour-long, ten song set was one of those moments where the sense of joyful discovery is accompanied by the regret of not having done so sooner.

Eric Bibb grew up in a musical household. His father Leon was active in New York City folk circles during the sixties. Among the family’s friends were Odetta, Pete Seeger, and Josh White. Paul Robeson was his godfather. His father gave him his first guitar at the age of seven, and he made his professional debut at sixteen. He dropped out of Columbia University and moved to Paris when he was nineteen, eventually settling in Stockholm.  His career spans 40 years and 35 albums, the first of which came out in 1972, though his breakthrough release, Good Stuff, didn’t arrive until 1997. Since then his profile has steadily risen in the U.S. and Europe, but I didn’t have more than a vague awareness of his name prior to Thursday night’s show. Better late than never.

Likewise for Michael Jerome Browne, an American roots musician who grew up in Montreal and has been playing a variety of instruments professionally since he was fourteen, who joined Bibb for the set.

Browne is a master slide player with formidable guitar skills, an obvious musician’s musician, and Bibb is a solid triple threat– singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Both men played acoustic guitars (perfectly miked, btw) with precision, heart and an obvious deep-rooted and thorough knowledge of the blues, American folk music, and spirituals. Playing with supreme confidence and a total absence of affectation, it was like watching two masters at work as they traversed a surprisingly varied musical landscape, the sources of which ranged from the Reconstruction era to Mali.

The set alternated between Bibb’s compositions and those of relatively obscure artists like John Cephas and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Bibb’s songs resist labels– though they pay obvious homage to roots music, their sound is contemporary, touching on territory that reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot, Tracy Chapman, and Marc Cohn as well as Leadbelly and Son House. Bibb’s voice is a rich baritone, and he has an exceptionally easy-going, engaging stage presence (including his deft, humorous handling an ill-timed cell-phone ring). He’s a consummate performer and musician– see him when you have the chance. His website has a link for tour dates and his next local gig is September 14 at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage.