I arrived quite early and waited in the car; my spirit encouraged, my body warm in the heated cocoon of the Toyota. My mind wandered. The week had been a long one, all work and no play. All of that was about to fade away; transcendence waited in the wings and I needed its touch. The silence in the car served to allow the pressures of the week to rise to the surface and I pushed them away and watched the clock, waiting for the doors to open.
The theater at the Black Rock seats just two hundred and nine and it is a beautifully designed intimate stage; a perfect setting for these veteran troubadours. Only about seventy-five showed up that night, but for those souls willing to brave the elements an evening of spirited musical treasure awaited.
The original design of the show was for Guy and Eric to each do a set and then come together to close the whole thing down. The rescheduling brought a format change. Guy, with bassist Mark Murphy, and Eric, with multi-instrumentalist Michael Jerome Browne, would share the stage and trade songs and stories. Murphy was a wonder to behold on doghouse bass and Michael Jerome Browne left the impression that he could play whatever was in arm’s reach at the time.
Throughout the night a strong historical thread emerged, connecting the artists to the folk movement of the sixties and beyond to the lush fields of the Mississippi delta. During the show Guy Davis would refer to Pete Seeger more than once, as he encouraged the audience to sing along, “Seeger style.” It brought to mind a time when black artists proudly referred to themselves as folk singers and appeared on albums with titles that included the word “Hootenanny.” Even John Lee Hooker, “The Hook,” referred to himself as a folk singer in the early days.
Davis and Bibb made it a personal, intimate presentation, and to the audience it felt like a living room concert. Guy Davis kicked the night off with “That’s No Way to Get Along,” playing twelve-string acoustic. Eric followed up with “Troubadour.” It was clear from the start that the audience was locked in on the performers and, in turn, the musician’s seemed to find strength in that. Eric introduced “New Home,” with Davis on harp, Murphy thumping along on the bottom end, and Michael Jerome Browne playing gorgeous bottle-neck slide guitar.
Guy then proceeded to tell the audience that things were getting too touchy-feely and emotional. His remedy? “We’re getting too comfortable with all this love. What we need right now is a song about sex!” He then tore into a cover of Muddy Waters’ “My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble,” to much laughter.
Eric then presented “Turner Station,” from the new cd Blues People, telling the audience that it was about a place near a steel mill in Baltimore. The chugging, locomotive rhythm of the song worked to undergird Bibb’s resolute outlook, “Everything done changed, my walk, talk, state of mind.”
Davis played rascal to Bibb’s humble, soft spoken personae throughout the evening, inserting double entendre whenever he could. He then reached for a classic, which he introduced by saying that it was written by that “great black bluesman, Bob Dylan,” just before turning in a moving rendition of “Lay, Lady Lay.”
Browne’s performance was spot-on and, if you closed your eyes, you could imagine yourself on a ramshackle gallery in the rural south listening to a local itinerate musician. The song is also one of the standout tracks on Browne’s excellent 2015 album, Sliding Delta. Do yourself a favor and get a copy. Browne’s recording sits nicely alongside Rory Block’s recent series honoring the elders, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Skip James. In fact, Guy Davis kept throwing humorous praises Browne’s way, at one point saying, “You think you’re getting to some place and you find Michael Jerome Browne is already there.” His slide guitar, harp, and fiddle work added emotional layers and depth to the songs of both Davis and Bibb.
Guy returned to Muddy’s catalog with “Can’t Be Satisfied,” which he played on banjo, Murphy offering an animated solo on bass, and Browne following suit with a stirring fiddle break. Eric followed with “New World Coming Through.” Guy Davis upped the ante with “Did You See My Baby,” reprising Sonny Terry’s moment in “Finian’s Rainbow” with a dead perfect representation of Terry’s whooping harp style. He also added some suggestive pelvic gyrations to embellish the song, much to the delight of the audience.
Song followed song; images of steel mills, tobacco fields, smoky juke joints and long empty roads filling the room to the rafters with portraits of the struggles of ordinary men and women. The whole affair seemed steeped in the stories of Steinbeck and the lyrics of Guthrie. And yet the best moments were still to come.
“I Heard the Angels Singing,” long a staple of Bibb’s set, built to a church-style epiphany. As Bibb reached further into the song, he began to rock in his chair like a man anointed by the Spirit, his seat moving back and forth, stomping his foot along with the rhythm of the steel strings. In the beginning Davis clapped along, finally reaching for his harp as the song continued to build in fervor. At one point Eric shouted, “Let’s go to church,” clearly stirred by the Rev. Gary Davis hymn. By the end of the song he had jumped to his feet, playing his guitar with the conviction of a man keeping his eyes on the prize, his guitar ringing like a church bell. Johnny B. Goode had nothing on Eric Bibb tonight.
For all his joking about being too comfortable with love, Davis turned in his best effort with a moving ballad, “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long.” Eric Bibb introduced the song by saying it was his favorite new song by Davis. Declaring that he didn’t believe people who said they had no regrets, Davis explained that the song was about being out on the road when loved ones needed him most. The verse about being unable to make it back before his mother passed struck a nerve with this listener and brought back memories of driving all through the night to make it home.
At this point, there was a brief question and answer period. After being asked about how he would describe what type of music he plays, whether he was more a piedmont blues style player, Bibb replied, “I am trying to declassify music. I prefer to think my role is that of a troubadour.” The comment seemed to sum up the evening and tie all of the threads into one tapestry. One last song, “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down,” sent the audience out into the frigid night with a fire in their souls and a reassurance of redemption.
Afterwards, backstage over dinner with the four troubadours, the conversation was about the everyday matters. Talk of lugging suitcases up hotel stairs, rental cars, and loved ones waiting at home. Families dominated the conversation. Before long it was after eleven and the four musicians had to pack up. In their rush to make it to the venue, they hadn’t even had time to secure hotel rooms. We shook hands and called it a night.
On the hour and a half drive home, I kept thinking over what I had just seen and heard; a journey through the songbook that laid the foundation for Americana. It comforted me to know that there are artists the quality of Bibb and Davis who remind us where we come from. For it is through remembering the past that we can anchor a culture that has been set adrift on the seas of narcissism and materialism and hope to reclaim a higher purpose for the human family. The whole night left me, in the words of the Irish troubadour Van Morrison, “feeling wondrous and lit up inside, with a sense of everlasting life.”
(Author's note - This show took place at the beginning of March, but due to circumstances beyond the author's control, this piece was delayed...but the moment was just too good not to share....)