oh neil

Lead Belly’s Gold

Eric Bibb and JJ Milteau

Stony Plain Records 2015

Review by David Bowing


Leon Bibb’s father was a regular on the 1960’s folk scene so it is only natural that his son Eric followed in his musical footsteps. He has always taken more of a blues approach than his father and his music has expanded in a number of directions at times, but at heart his foundation remains folk music.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, has influenced three generations of musicians. His primitive folk and blues songs are pure Americana at its most basic. His original compositions and adjusting a number of traditional songs have been passed down to thousands of folk and blues musicians. Now Eric Bibb with harp player JJ Milteau has issued a tibute album from the heart.

Lead Belly’s Gold contains 11 live tracks recorded at The Sunset Jazz  Club in Paris, plus five studio tracks tacked on at the end. While the majority of the music is straight from the Lead Belly songbook, there are several original tribute songs.

Bibb’s voice is lighter and more easy going and his approach to the music more complex, which adds up to a good modern day approach to Lead Belly’s music. Milteau is a superb harp player and brings new textures to the music. For the purist, Lead Belly only rarely used harpist Sonny Terry, so there are modern day additions to the music.

“Rock Island Line,” “Pick A Bale Of Cotton,” “Goodnight Irene,” and “When I Get To Dallas” are fine live versions that channel Lead Belly’s Stage presence. His take on “The Midnight Special” and the traditional “House Of The Rising Sun” show Bibb’s ability to transform a song and make it his own while paying homage to its roots.

Perhaps the best song is a spiritual medley of ‘When That Train Comes Along/Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” It is a place where his and Lead Belly’s sensibilities meet.

The studio recordings are different from the live tracks. More effort seems to have gone into them, which hurts the spontaneity and energy that was built up with the live recordings. He probably should have recorded one disc live and one in the studio and kept them separate. Ledbetter’s “Stewball,” “Bourgeois Blues,” and “”Titanic” all have a traditional approach. Bibb’s own “Chauffeur Blues” could have been written by Lead Belly. His “Swimmin’ In A River Of Songs” is a heartfelt tribute to his idol.

Eric Bibb’s decision to record the music of Lead Belly has been over four decades in the making.  A good re-invention of the music of one of America’s legendary troubadours.

Rating: ***1/2