Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau: Lead Belly’s Gold

Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau Lead Belly’s Gold.jpg

Submitted to Cashbox Canada with
CD Song Reviews by Sandy Graham

Stony Plain Records has announced a November 6th release date for Lead Belly’s Gold, the new album tribute to the legendary blues and folk musician from award-winning roots musician Eric Bibb and acclaimed French harmonica player JJ Milteau. Lead Belly’s Gold features 11 live tracks recorded at famed Paris jazz club, The Sunset, as well as five new studio recordings.

“It’s hard to remember when I first heard Lead Belly’s music because, somehow, he’s always been around,” writes Eric Bibb’s in the album’s liner notes. “Most likely, I heard recordings of others (The Weavers and Woody Guthrie) singing songs from his huge repertoire before hearing his actual voice. In any case, I have an early memory from the mid-1950s of listening to a recording of Lead Belly singing a children’s song, ‘Ha Ha This-a-Way’. At that time, my dad, Leon, was beginning to make his name known in New York City folk music circles. He recently told me he remembered hearing Lead Belly perform at The Village Vanguard in the late 1940s.

So, the soundtrack of my childhood included more than a few of the great bard’s songs. The sound of his 12-string guitar is part of my DNA.

“What I hear now, when I listen to Lead Belly’s recordings and YouTube clips, and what I must have sensed when I was a boy, is the man’s personal power and independence. His sound made it clear that he was his own man. The fatalism and resignation that I heard later in the voices of many of my prewar blues heroes was missing in Lead Belly. He was way ahead of his time. The path he cut through a world that conspired to rob him of his humanity, dignity and manhood was a personal triumph that will inspire for generations to come,” adds Bibb.

Indeed, the music of Huddie Ledbetter (aka “Lead Belly”) that he either wrote or popularized from traditional songs, resonated with everyone from folk and blues musicians of the 1940s/1950s, to rock and roll artists starting in the 1960s/1970s and continuing to the present day. Songs like “Midnight Special” became a part of the set lists of such rock acts as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Johnny Rivers, to name a few; while classic tunes “Good Night Irene” and “Rock Island Line” were staples in the repertoire of folkies such as The Weavers and Woodie Guthrie, and blues performers still regularly record and perform songs associated with Lead Belly.

“Endowed with an uncommon talent, he generated around his person a sense of fraternity that awarded him the protective help of the Lomaxes, favored artistic collaborations with Pete Seeger and other liberals in the 1940s, and aroused the empathy of the young audiences he loved to entertain,” states JJ Milteau.

“Yet his main claim to fame is linked to his personal power and conviction as an interpreter. No one is left unscathed by Lead Belly’s voice, by the sound of his guitar, both distant and familiar.

Only great artists showcase such timelessness while chronicling their times.

“Working with Eric on this project has been a real treat. Each and every song came to us in a natural and spontaneous way. The majority of titles present on this album were recorded live, with or without an audience, in order to preserve this freshness. I’m looking forward to more stage performances around this project,” Milteau says.

Lead Belly’s Gold features both material from the Lead Belly canon, as well as original songs written by Eric Bibb and JJ Milteau as a salute to their mentor. Additional musicians on the album include Larry Crockett – drums and percussion; Big Daddy Wilson and Michael Robinson – backing vocals; Gilles Michel – bass; Glen Scott – drums, bass and Wurlitzer; and Michael Jerome Browne – 12-string guitar and mandolin.

“Lead Belly was a human jukebox,” summarizes Eric Bibb. “He knew hundreds of songs that he’d either heard somewhere and adapted, or written himself. Authorship of many of the songs he sang has long been a controversial topic of heated debate in folk music circles. What is clear is this: if not for Lead Belly and the collectors who first recorded him, we might never have heard many of these timeless songs.

“Jean-Jacques and I chose songs from Lead Belly’s vast repertoire that we could make our own. We wanted to pay homage to not only a great musician, but to the rich tradition he embodied. Staying pretty close to his renditions, we had a lot of fun collaborating on these new arrangements.

“Lead Belly spread his music by performing live in front of mostly smaller audiences and recordings. We decided that the energy from a small, enthusiastic audience would help us dive deep into the songs. Fortunately, our good friend Stéphane at The Sunset, a famous Parisian jazz club, was happy to make his venue available. We also took a few songs from those club recordings and augmented them in the studio, as well as including some original, new studio tracks. The result is this album, Lead Belly’s Gold.”

When Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter) , as discovered in Lousiana’s infamous Angola prison farm, there was no way he would become would become the most famous black folksinger in history, bringing the attention of millions to the power of the African-American song, well outside the boundaries of his own community. His compositions have been covered by Nirvana, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, showing that Leadbelly’s songs had a unique talent for bridging gaps through his songs.

Grey Goose  - a trad that truly is a great choice for kicking off this great CD, it is so inspiring to hear acoustic guitars, live vocals straight from the floor, with no auto tune. Great harp playing accents the authenticity of this tune.

When That Train Comes Along / Swing Low, Sweet Chariot  - a spiritual offering, that is truly in the keeping of the spirit of Lead Belly, joined here by the wonderful Big Daddy Wilson.  A perfect choice of putting these songs together as a heartfelt delivery, with the sadness of When That Train Comes Along and picking up with a faster version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Brilliant.

On A Monday – a famous Lead Belly prison song, joined by a US/now living in Paris Michael Robinson – with a bit of a ska feel, great harmonies and a magnetic offering of this tune.
The House Of The Rising Sun – a famous song made famous again in the 1960’s by Eric Burden and the Animals, this rendition is sad and soulful, with a simple arrangement that hits you right in the chest.

Midnight Special – a live take this famous song tells about a train seen from a prison cell window, has a Louisiana, down south, Cajun feeling to it that is just superb.

Bring A Little Water, Sylvie – a Lead Belly classic has the folk brilliance shining through on this rendition; it shows how the ‘folkies’ were influenced by this music.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Other titles for this song are “Black Girl” and “In the Pines” was a staple of Lead Belly’s, this song was actually covered by Kurt Cobain. Very bluesy and well delivered, it shows off the talents of this new rendition, with soulful harmonica solos and haunting vocals.

When I Get To Dallas – written by Eric Bibb and JJ Milteau was inspired by Lead Belly’s early days as a street singer in Dallas. In keeping with the spirit of Lead Belly, these two really captured his soul and spirit in these lyrics.

Pick A Bale Of Cotton  - A trad that was immortalized by Lead Belly, this work song is well covered here, with a shuffle sound that doesn’t take away from meaning of this song.

Goodnight, Irene – the first time a Lead Belly song made the charts,this one made # 1 by the Weavers, a year after his death. A folk singer’s staple, this sad tune is well done here and live to boot.

Rock Island Line was actually a prisoner’s song that was made famous by Lonnie Donegan in the UK in 1955 and sparked the skiffle craze. Donegan was inspired by Lead Belly’s version and the rest is history. You can tell by the audience applause this is a winner in the show.

Part Two: Stu Dio

Bourgeois Blues – a courageous song about segregation, penned by Lead Belly in 1938, sadly some of these lyrics still hold true in these current times.

Chauffeur Blues – penned by Stu Dio, it was written as an homage to Lead Belly to his former boss, John Lomax, who he served as a chauffeur. Unsaid words.

Stewball – the first time I heard this song was by The Hollies on one of their earlier albums. Dio remembered it as a song by his Dad’s band The Skifflers, which goes to show a good song is just that a good song – no matter what decade it was recorded in. Starting off with a great a ccappella harmony and a swing type arrangement makes it so different than any other version I have heard before.

Titanic – Lead Belly claimed he wrote this on the streets of Dallas, singing on the streets with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Blues at its best.

Swimmin’ In A River Of Songs – written in the first person, this tribute to the life of Lead Belly seen thru his eyes. Closing out this amazing CD it sure does make you want to keep it on repeat.

Well done!

To watch a special video created by Eric Bibb and JJ Milteau introducing the new album project, click on this link:

Press and Publicity: Mark Pucci Media