I have to say that I suffered some weird kind of cultural guilt trip at times watching the frankly astonishing Eric Bibb play at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Here we all were, say about 5-600 people genteelly crammed into a tent in the manicured Imperial Gardens, every man jack of us as far as I could see white and resolutely middle class, clapping along to blues music from the deep south with a strong seam of religious faith running through it, a seam probably eschewed by the bulk of the right-on liberals in the crowd.
But what a musician. Effortlessly switching between three guitars and producing the most sublime sounds, even I had to forget about the incongruities of the evening.
After a very short ‘showcase’ set from Megan Henwood, Radio 2 Young Folk award winner, Bibb strolled onto the stage with his trademark hat firmly in place. With a voice like melted chocolate his easy banter put the crowd at ease and he fired off a few songs in quick succession. Soon he introduced Grant Dermody l the Seattle born harmonica player who is Bibbs sole accompaniment on his new CD Bookers Guitar. Dermody might look like a cross between an IT technician and a professional wood whittler but he can produce the most amazing blues harmonica playing. Played badly the harmonica is the instrument of the devil but like this it is incomparable.
Bookers Guitar is a set of songs inspired by being invited to hold and play the1930s vintage Resophonic National steel-body guitar that had belonged to Delta blues legend Booker White. The whole set is infused by that Delta blues character helping show off Bibb’s extraordinary skill at acoustic blues.
Bibb has long been perhaps better known in the UK and Europe than back at home in the states although that seems to be changing now too. He has a good history of recording in Europe, especially Sweden and the title track of the new CD was recorded in the UK.
His rapport with the crowd was a relaxed one, cracking a few jokes along the way. After spending some time tuning his guitar he quipped, “Tuning, a bit like aircraft maintenance – always worth it”.
All together the set was an accomplished one, high quality music, with a suitably quality sound engineer on hand, delivered with style and confidence. The only downside, at least early on, comes from the problem of playing in, albeit a rather flash, tent. Traffic noise was an occasional bug bear as was the ending of an earlier, louder set elsewhere in the Gardens. The most irritating was the car alarm: “ Seems like we have Jimney Cricket with us tonight”, but that too gave up soon enough.
An outstanding musician and performer.