Eric Bibb knows the ways of a bluesman. He knows the routes that pioneers paved before him and the avenues his contemporaries travel to keep the music alive and vital.
But the singer, writer and song stylist also is versed on the side roads, the trails that wind around the blues into regions of folk and soul as well as the vast terrain that stretches between them. Bibb has followed those pathways all over the world in a career that span five decades. He is proud to be linked with the blues, but there remains a drive to let audiences know that his music is by no means confined or defined by them.
“I’m grateful that I have been able to make use of the interest there is in blues as a genre, all the hype included, as well as the real-deal stuff,” says Bibb, who performs twice in the region over the coming week: Friday night with fellow global blues journeyman Corey Harris at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville and Feb. 11 on his own at Berea College.
“I’ve been able to find a way onto the blues platform, an established, marketable commodity that has helped my career. But blues is not the entirety of what I do. If I had marketed myself simply as an eclectic singer songwriter songster, I think I would have missed out on a lot of exposure that has been a real boom for me.”
To appreciate the scope of Bibb’s music, you need to meet the family. His father, Leon Bibb, was a Louisville champion of Broadway and the 1960s New York folk boom. His uncle was pianist John Lewis, a mainstay member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His godfather was singer/activist Paul Robeson. It was that heritage that encouraged Bibb to see the world — first with his family and then on his own.
“I actually had a 13th birthday in Kiev (Ukraine),” Bibb says. “My dad had a tour of what was then the Soviet Union. So I had a chance to see Europe, the Soviet Union and England as a 12-year-old and 13-year-old. It was unusual for an African-American family to be traveling around Europe in the mid-’60s. So it was a blessing. It probably had a lot to do with me moving to Europe when I came of age, having had a taste of something that must have piqued my curiosity.
“I’m not the first blues troubadour who has traveled around the world. Big Bill Broonzy was in Europe early on. Leadbelly was in Paris in 1949 before he died. So I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition, not only musically but just in terms of my wandering. It’s been a gift, truly.”
Such globetrotting, along with ties to a like-minded generation of musicians (Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart and performance mate Harris) who revere the blues without being pigeonholed by them has helped ot inform a remarkably prolific recording career. In recent years, Bibb’s output has included a well-rounded blues and soul solo session (2013’s Jericho Road), a summit with a pack of genre-busting roots music stylists including the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal (2014’s Blues People), a Leadbelly-inspired project with French harmonica ace J.J. Milteau (2015’s Leadbelly’s Gold) and a forthcoming collaboration with veteran British bassist Danny Thompson (The Happiest Man in the World).
“It’s challenging to juggle all of this history without making a cartoon out of it, without lumping all of the African-American experience into one howl. This music, it’s varied and it’s subtle. Getting all that across in a genre that tends to characterize the music and the musicians is challenging. But educating ourselves, as well our audiences, is part of what this journey is about, too.”
If you go
Corey Harris and Eric Bibb
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 5
Where: Weisiger Theatre, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 11
Where: Phelps-Stokes Auditorium, Berea College in Berea