Earlier this year, we told you about a terrific new five-disc set featuring the music of blues-folk singer and player Lead Belly, a project that has since received a nomination in the Best Liner Notes category of the 58th annual Grammy Awards.
While the Smithsonian collection of course provides an interesting and comprehensive chronicling of Lead Belly’s (whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter) own musical career, it’s also nice to hear so many artists continuing to cover Ledbetter’s songs, as evidenced, for example, by young UK guitarist Laurence Jones‘ rocking take on “Good Morning Blues” on Jones’ recent What’s It Gonna Be album and this hauntingly soulful rendition of “In the Pines” (a.k.a. “Black Girl”, a.k.a. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) performed by rising indie blues act Fantastic Negrito (joined by acclaimed roots guitarist Colin Linden) in October at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, just to name a few.
And that’s not even mentioning the Lead Belly Fest tribute concert that took place this past summer at London’s Royal Albert Hall featuring such artists as Van Morrison, Jools Holland, Paul Jones, Walter Trout (in his first on-stage appearance since his successful liver transplant), Eric Burdon, Dana Fuchs, and the aforementioned Jones, with the line-up announced just last week for a follow-up event to take place this side of the pond in February at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. In addition to including many of the same artists who participated in the UK show (Trout, Fuchs, Burdon, Josh White Jr., and Jones, among them), the US debut of the festival will also feature a few new but familiar faces in Buddy Guy, guitarist Nick Moss and his band’s vocalist Michael Ledbetter (a Lead Belly descendant), and young acoustic multi-instrumentalist Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton.
As talented and entertaining as he is, Paxton finds himself with some proverbial big shoes to fill, having inherited the role of modern-day troubadour played on the June UK bill by the slightly more seasoned acoustic bluesman Eric Bibb. While it would actually be a delight to hear both Paxton and Bibb on the same ticket, we’d say Bibb has more than earned himself an excused absence from this latest program with his work on another Lead Belly-related project, a full album featuring Bibb’s and French harmonica player Jean-Jacques (JJ) Milteau‘s interpretations of songs from – along with a few originals inspired by – Ledbetter in the shining Lead Belly’s Gold (Stony Plain Records).
Featuring almost a dozen live tracks recorded in the small Paris jazz club The Sunset plus five new studio recordings, the album captures Bibb and Milteau taking on some of Lead Belly’s most popular tunes including “Goodnight, Irene”, “Grey Goose”, “Midnight Special”, “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie”, “Pick a Bale of Cotton”, “Bourgeois Blues”, and “The House of the Rising Sun”. From the soft, tender strains of songs such as “Goodnight, Irene” and a “When That Train Comes Along” that serves as the opening half of a spiritual medley which then picks up the pace with a “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that also includes Big Daddy Wilson on vocals, and creeping numbers like the dark, deep-vocaled “The House of the Rising Sun” and a funked-up “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, to the plucky “Titanic” and other uptempo songs like “Midnight Special” and “Rock Island Line”, Bibb and Milteau bring the listener as close to the real Lead Belly as one can get today.
Big Daddy Wilson returns to help out on vocals for “Pick a Bale of Cotton”, with Michael Robinson also joining in for the breezy “On a Monday”, one of the album’s best offerings, on which Milteau provides a neat little surprise by inserting some licks from another popular Lead Belly tune “John Hardy”, while songs like “Bourgeois Blues” and “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie” – two numbers that Bibb performed at the Royal Albert Hall concert – help remind us of the smoothness of Bibb’s own voice.
The three original tracks are each written and performed in the tradition – and indeed from the perspective – of Lead Belly, as they might very well have been played by the man himself, with lyrics of “buy[ing] a big ol’ Stella, sing[ing] a song for you” (“When I Get to Dallas”), swapping roles with his former boss (“Next time aroun’, I’m gonna turn it upside-down/ next time, you’ll be drivin’ me”) on “Chauffeur Blues”, and relating the story of his life and musical career in the uplifting “Swimmin’ in a River of Songs”, the title and chorus of which refer to the hundreds of tunes that Lead Belly claimed to have known.
You don’t need to be a fan of Lead Belly himself to enjoy this one (but there’s a good chance it will help make you one): with its fine musicianship, superb vocals, and entertaining presentation, Lead Belly’s Gold is a true musical treasure trove.
[Those in The BluesPowR Blog’s home base of Pittsburgh will have a chance to catch Bibb live when he performs next month as part of the Calliope Concerts Series in Oakland. For more information on that show, please visit the Calliope: The Pittsburgh Folk Music Society website.]