Lead Belly’s been gone for over 60 years, but his music still resonates throughout this fat nation on many different levels.
Guitarist Eric Bibb and Mississippi saxophone player JJ Milteau do a great job of expressing the range of emotions and music that Lead Belly embodied and defined on this mostly live recording from France. Bibb and Milteau’s playing and singing has the defiance of Lead Belly’s social critiques and the playful whimsy of his more folk/children’s melodies. The arrangements are sparse: mainly vocals, harmonica, guitar, and occasional bass and percussion which allows the timeless nature of the songs and the musicians’ interpretation of them to be front and center. Performing in front of a live audience gives the music more of an edge than usual. This comes out in the hushed, rueful tone of “House of the Rising Sun” and the hopeful jaunt of “Midnight Special.” The musicians dig in on these standards, and it gives this record an added depth. But it’s not all doom and gloom here.
The final two songs of the live set, “Good Night, Irene” and “Rock Island Line,” maintain the communal, participatory energy that has made them popular from coffee houses to stadiums the world over. The originals penned by Bibb and with Milteau fit right in on this set, especially the Lead Belly-reprimanding-John-Lomax-from-heaven fantasy “Chauffeur Blues.” As a primer for Lead Belly’s songs performed with respect and conviction, a listener can’t do much better than Bibb and Milteau’s record.