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Eric Bibb Feels No Pain When Singing Blues

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unless blues music is awfully good, it can be awfully bad. The best blues artists mold the music into a deep personal expression; the rest just connect the dots, trying to fill the rote form of the music with the overwrought sounds of unlived experience.

Not everybody has a hellhound on their trail, but most try to sing like it, resulting in music that R&B; great Johnny Otis once described as sounding like people “scratching when they don’t itch and laughing when it ain’t funny.”

Then there’s Eric Bibb.

He sings as if he doesn’t even have a dachshund on his trail, creating some of the most untroubled-sounding blues this side of the Rev. Gary Davis. And in his quiet way, Bibb is just about stunning.

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On his two U.S.-release albums, “Good Stuff” and “Spirit and the Blues,” Bibb, who plays tonight in San Juan Capistrano, melds exquisite acoustic blues with full-throated spirituals (with bluegrass flourishes and with even a wheezy church pump organ pressed into service on one song), singing in a rich, expressive voice that always accentuates the positive.

“A number of people have commented on the more positive, sunny side of the blues that I project,” Bibb said. “When I listen to people like Mississippi John Hurt, it was the lack of overt drama that made his music so wonderful. It was what it is, his life in real time.

“Some of our other blues heroes lived almost insanely intense lives,” he said. “We can only imagine what some of those Southern guys went through on a day-to-day level. That gave their music a certain urgency that was real, and you can’t copy it. When you musically try to emulate them, what you can’t bring to it from your own experience you maybe just lay on top because you think it’s the missing ingredient, but it sounds false.

“For me it was always a question of absorbing this wonderful music, this language, and not taking more than was real for me, in terms of what I could identify with. I mean, I’m an urban guy, not someone sharecropping on the Mississippi Delta. My music is just a reflection of where I’m at in my personal evolution and the times we’re living in.”

Bibb has spent more of his life in proximity to fiords than the delta. The son of New York folk singer Leon Bibb and a nephew of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, Bibb grew up surrounded by the likes of Paul Robeson (who was his godfather), Pete Seeger, Josh White and Bob Dylan.

He attended one of New York’s “Fame” high schools of the arts. In his late teens he traveled to Europe, scrounging out a living with his guitar. He fell in love in Sweden and has lived for some two decades in Stockholm, where he’s raising his own family.

Bibb’s father had come to New York City in the 1940s from Louisville, Ky., with ambitions of being a musical-theater artist. He worked in several Broadway productions, including the original “Annie Get Your Gun,” but, Bibb said, “he soon found out there were very few roles on Broadway for an African American baritone with designs on having major parts.”

“At that point he decided to make a career doing what was also very natural to him: singing spirituals and folk songs. Our house was always full, with musicians and people involved in civil rights and other social causes.

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“I was too young to remember Robeson, but meeting Josh White, meeting Odetta, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, the Rev. Gary Davis, seeing Son House perform at the Newport Folk Festival--it was a thrilling, inspiring childhood,” said Bibb, who has two sisters--one his twin, the other six years younger. “It was all I knew, but even so, I knew it was an enviable position to be in.”

Blues Man in Europe

Though his art-school classmate Janis Ian found success at 17, it has taken Bibb until his mid-40s “to share what I do with people without struggling to find an open avenue.”

He did his time in Europe busking in subway stations, teaching music and working as an accompanist (he also had a job translating Swedish children’s books into English). He still sometimes encounters reverse snobbism over his background.

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“In Europe, particularly, people can have a narrow, romantic vision of what constitutes a blues musician. It’s easy to understand, but it’s naive. I sing, and people sort of assume I’m from the South. When I tell them I’m from New York, I can see the disappointment, like I’m suddenly less bluesy,” he said with a laugh.

Bibb recently finished a new album, tentatively titled “Home to Me,” but it probably won’t be released in the U.S. for the better part of a year because “Spirit and the Blues” has only just been issued in the States.

The album was actually recorded and released in 1994, three years before “Good Stuff.” It’s all timeless music, so it scarcely matters if America gets the chronology wrong.

Bibb also played on the children’s album “Shakin’ a Tailfeather” with Taj Mahal and Linda Tillery, with whom Bibb shared a 1997 Grammy nomination for the album.

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Explaining why he pursues his craft, Bibb said, “I was nurtured and had my first musical revelations at a time when music was very much a reflection of the social environment and the political situations that were around. The people I got to meet who were singing folk music were also activists who were deeply involved in their society.

“I like to think of myself as someone who was enriched by the sense of social care and responsibility that, say, Pete Seeger embodies. The accent for me is on the music, but whether it’s blues, spirituals, bluegrass or whatever, the music was the real soundtrack to people’s lives. That whole approach to music, of using it to get through difficult situations, using it to invigorate and inspire people, is pretty integral to me.

“I’ve really become aware of how powerful music can be in building bridges, in helping to tell people that they are connected more than they are separate,” he said. “So I don’t separate my musical career from the fact that I am a citizen of the world, doing what I can to make it a better place.”

* Eric Bibb performs tonight at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. 7 and 9 p.m. $6; $3 for children 12 and under. (949) 248-7469.

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