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Eric Bibb and friends to tap a deep "Well" of music for Skirball concert

Keith Perry

Eric Bibb’s new Deeper in the Well album sounds like front porch music. Just friends sitting and playing.

And that’s pretty much what it was when Bibb, multi-strings player Dirk Powell, fiddler Cedric Watson, harmonicat Grant Dermody, percussionist Danny DeVillier and triangle player (yes, triangle, though she's also a first-rate singer) Christine Balfa got together to make the record.

“Just started playing.”

Simple as that.

“Not really a big challenge for any of us.”

Okay. But that porch could have been just about anywher. New York, where Bibb was born and raised, a guitar prodigy at the height of the Greenwich Village folk-blues boom, the son of singer Leon Bibb, nephew of Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis and godson of Paul Robeson? Helsinki, where he now lives? Appalachia, the birth-region and musical incubator for Powell, who plays banjo, mandolin, accordion, fiddle and upright bass on the album? The swamps and prairies of Western Louisiana’s Acadiana region, from whence the innovative Watson hails? 

It was, in fact, in Louisiana. Powell, who is married to Balfa (daughter of the late great Dewey Balfa, one of the giants of traditional Cajun music) and has lived in the region for some time now, hosted the ensemble at his Cypress House studios, situated in a structure built in 1840 along the banks of Bayou Teche, just south of the town of Breaux Bridge (home to the annual Crawfish Festival), not far from Lafayette. The literal porch of that house makes a cameo appearance in the video of the song “Bayou Belle” here:

But in a metaphorical sense, that porch was located in all of the above, per Bibb.

“It’s a gumbo,” he says, turning to Louisiana for the culinary analogy, for the resulting music. “But it’s got ingredients that all know each other.”

The ingredients, sure. The musicians a bit less so. Bibb and Powell jammed along with mandolinist Sam Bush and dobro/slide master Jerry Douglas and others in Scotland for an episode of the "Transatlantic Sessions" TV show last year (see video of that performance below). Powell, Balfa, Watson and Devillier are mainstays of the vibrant Acadiana musical culture. And Bibb and Dermody have performed together regularly for ages. 

But the sessions for Well were the first time they all ever played together. And Thursday in the closing event of the Skirball Cultural Center's Summer Sunset Concerts season will be just the second, marking the first time the ensemble has ever played a show.

And again, no big deal, Bibb insists.

“Even though they all have their things they specialize in, all of this music — whether Creole, Cajun, blues, old-timey — it’s all really quite interrelated,” he says. “It’s just sort of a matter of finding your own voice in the gumbo, figuring out where it fits.”

The original idea had been to do more old material, songs Bibb loves from the folk and blues catalogs of the 1920s and ‘30s for the most part. 

“I found a lot of great stuff,” he says. “But I realized I didn’t want to make a museum piece. Wanted something that sounded older, but was contemporary. I find a lot of people making traditional records with traditional material and doing it well.”

He cites such current acts as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which is grounded in the African-American string band traditions, though has greatly expanded the concept and repertoire as well. But having this group of musicians coming in inspired him to take a different tack.

“I wanted to write new material that fit in well with the styles of the players and melded the traditions.”

That said, he maintains that he did not really have a clear notion of what any of this would sound like before they all gathered to play. Nor did he want to.

“My experience tells me that if you get the right players together, the actual shape will come as it’s recorded,” he says, adding, “it was important to have confidence in the songs.”

And that was the real challenge.

“I wanted to write songs that would be compatible and at home with my older heroes — John Hurt, Leadbelly — songs that are not really a caricature or pastiche, but harken back to that feel without compromising who I am as a performer. When that happens I am really thrilled.”

He hit that mark throughout these songs, finding not just his voice but the collective voice of the group.

“Look at the songs, ‘Deeper in the Well,’ ‘Money in Your Pocket,’ I’ve always been attracted to and try to write the kind of songs that could be at home in several genres, wether country or blues or folk traditions familiar to me from my background, songs you can take any way and accent in ways that are related to the music. We could use these songs as broad canvases for a lot of those flavors — country licks, blues licks, old-timey things.”

There are a few ringers in the mix. The old field song “Boll Weevil” was something the group just started jamming on one day.

“It happened spontaneously on the floor, Dirk and Grant started playing together,” he says. “Wow, man. Dirk sounded so good singing it that I suggested he sing it on the album. But he said, ‘I’m interested in hearing your voice on it.’ Good call! My vocal puts me in mind of something Son House would have done way back. And it all has this old-timey Dock Boggs feel to it. I like the way it came out.”

And at the end of the album is a classic that brought folk traditions into modern times a couple of generations ago, and to Bibb’s ears still sounds vital, as well as serving to tie many aspects of this record together: a soulful, even gentle version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

Dylan fills a key role in Bibb’s personal tale, with a brief but impactful encounter when Bibb was an 11-year-old boy and Dylan was the hot new star in the folk scene. Bibb was already playing guitar, had heard “Times” via Peter, Paul & Mary and had learned to play it.

“My dad had a party for some of his show-business friends,” he says. “Dylan finally showed up late night and I had a conversation with him about playing guitar. He was the talk of the town at that time.”

With Dylan’s advice (“keep it simple”) spurring him on, Bibb soon was lugging his guitar on the subway to Washington Square park, not even a teen yet, and sitting in with the folkies. And he made it to Newport the year Dylan notoriously “went electric” — though Bibb had to leave before that historic event and instead was blown away to see Son House perform. 

“Opened up a whole new world,” he says.

So evoking both Son House and Dylan on this record brings it all full circle, with “Times” the perfect closing.

“Quite a few of the songs on this have a what’s-going-on-right-now feel, and that particular song reflected what’s really happening,” he says. “As I do find with a lot of songs from the ‘60s, it’s having a second life in the world of contemporary social politics. I felt enough time had gone by to do it the right way, focus on the lyrics. We did a non-strident version, felt that the energy that surrounded that song when it came into being was appropriate, but didn’t feel we needed the same vibe, to rail and rant against the powers, but more serious reflections on the state of affairs, and how we might want to think about waking up. Less anger, more hopefulness and some serious concern.”