Eric Bibb is a prolific musical marvel. For example, in the last six years, he has released by my count nine recordings (including two live discs) that reflect an amazing range of diverse musical influence and sound: African/Mali music (Brothers in Bamako). Cajun/Louisiana (Deeper in the Well), Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly’s Gold), Delta blues/gospel (Booker’s Blues). For his latest release, The Happiest Man in the World, Bibb gathers old friends to create an immensely confident and enjoyable recording that transcends its many musical influences.
Recorded in rural England in July 2015, The Happiest man in the World features Bibb (lead vocals, guitar, banjo) and his Eric Bibb and the North Country Far friends on an array of instruments: Danny Thompson (bass). Olli Haavista (Dobro, pedal steel, Hawaiian guitar), Petri Hakala (mandolin, mandola) and Janne Haavista (drums), along with five additional musicians who make cameo appearances. The exquisite musicianship and disarming musical interplay is best captured by this quatation from Keith Richards which appears, in part, on the disc’s booklet: “There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together.”
With songs such as Tell Ol’ Bill, Tossin’ and Turnin’, On the Porch and the title cut, Bibb and friends have created beautifully sublime music that both combines and transcends the blues, country and folk music. The Happiest Man in the World captures what we have come to expect from Bibb–there are no overblown solos or showbeating of any type. The emphasis is not on the individual players or their obvious virtuosity. Rather, the focus is on the songs and how the players can achieve a heighted level of empathy and symbiosis in the moment of artistic creation.
Lyrically, most of the songs reflect the disc’s title–relational assurance, contentment and bliss–the flipside of Bibb’s more political work (e.g., 2014’s Blues People). The songs are sequenced to highlight the transition from finding and relishing love to the inevitable loss of a soul mate through death or some irretrievable loss. Throughout, Bibb sings of self-sacrifice (I’ll Farm for You), domesticity (Creole Café), destiny (Born To Be Your Man), sensuality (King Size Bed) and death of a spouse (Tell Ol’Bill). Bibb, who wrote or co-wrote ten of the 14 songs, rarely traffics in sentimentality and clichés, as exemplified in this series of lyrics from Born to Be Your Man: “Stevie Wonder born to be the master jammer / Cassius Clay was born to be Muhammad Ali / The Champ forevermore / An’ I was born to be your lovin’ man / The one they call The Troubadour.” Only Prison of Time (which concerns the ravages of time and disconnection from family) and Tossin’ and Turnin’ (about the Dust Bowl and migration west) seem to depart from disc’s dominant theme. On the whole, The Happiest Man in the World is truly a very happy sounding disc.
The Happiest Man in the World concludes with a nice surprise–a version of the Kinks’s You Really Got Me. Like country artist Sturgill Simpson’s recent sly and elegant version of Nirvana’s In Bloom. Bibb and band offer their own unique interpretation without losing the song’s original power. The stately qualities of The Happiest Man in the World make it an essential contemporary blues disc.
Stephen A. King