Reviewed by Iain Cameron – www.bluesenthused.com
I owe Eric Bibb an apology. Initially I was reluctant to even listen to this album, far less review it. The reason? Well, at some point in the dim and distant I heard a bit of Bibb, and put him down as a purveyor of the kind of twee, folky acoustic blues that turns me right off. Well, however true or not that judgement may have been at the time, it certainly isn’t a fair reflection of Ridin’.
As soon as I dropped the metaphorical needle on the opening track, ‘Family’, I pricked up my ears good and proper, lured in by the combination of Bibb’s warm, hushed voice, spare banjo notes, and junkyard-type percussion. The lyric is a hymn to unity and dialogue rather than division, suggesting we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin – a laudable ideal, if a bit of a stretch right now, precisely because society is so divided these days. But still, with some backing vocals adding to the aural embrace, and hinting at gospel, Eric Bibb had got my attention.
Fact is, while ‘Family’ is an appealing opener, Bibb serves up several even better songs here. ‘Ridin’’ itself, for example, is a groove-perfect affair, initially built just on a loping train rhythm picked out on low guitar strings, expressing a determination to keep “riding on the freedom train”, even if it’s periodically derailed by incidents such as the assassination of Martin Luther King or the gruesome lynching of Emmett Till. And it gathers extra musical strength when subtle drums and a spooky slide solo are added to the mix, and towards the end some ripplingly finessed guitar lines.
‘Ballad Of John Howard Griffin’ is more of a folky-bluesy acoustic affair, while jazz guitarist Russell Malone gradually adds some embellishments over the cool finger-snapping groove. But what’s really gripping is the true story it tells. The titular Griffin was a white journalist who in 1959 medicated and tanned himself in order to walk a mile in the shoes of a black man in the American South, eventually recounting his experience of racism and contempt in the book Black Like Me – and being pegged as a traitor by white people in his Texas town.
In a similar lyrical vein, ‘Tulsa Town’ tells the story of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, in which one of the wealthiest black neighbourhoods in the country, dubbed the “Black Wall Street”, was burned to the ground, with dozens killed and hundreds of blacks illegally interned. It’s set to a simple but strong melody, over a nagging rhythm and chiming guitar chords, and works like a dream. Meanwhile ‘Call Me By Name’ is an assertion of identity and self-respect, that after the contribution black people have made to America, “I’m a man, not your boy”. It’s built on a classic, twirling old blues riff, while the guesting Harrison Kennedy contributes some suitably strong vocal.
‘Joybells’ is a more delicate, lyrical song, with a beautiful blending of voices elevating the chorus line “Joybells keep ringing in my heart”, over subtle banjo and more of that basic percussion. It’s an elegy for all the (known) victims of lynching in American, in the wake of the 2018 opening of a memorial to them in Montgomery, Alabama.
Other tracks to catch the ear include the old-fashioned, hypnotic blues of ‘I Got My Own’, with its clacking rhythm, conversational vocal, and flickering guitar remarks courtesy of Mali’s Amar Sundy, and the brief instrumental ‘Onwards Interlude’, which comes over like an ambient folk/blues piece with its pattering rhythm, shimmering guitar picking and strumming, and long, eerie slide notes.
A couple of tracks are more slight, and could have been dropped without doing any harm, but all in all Ridin’ is a captivating listen, with real resonance in both its lyrics and its musical focus. So yeah, I did you wrong Eric, and I’m glad to better acquainted now.
Ridin’ is out now on Repute Records.