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Originally published Friday, July 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Bluesman Eric Bibb taps into the spiritual power of music

Eric Bibb, blues/soul/folk singer, is a musician who epitomizes African-American music's enduring power to overcome hard times and sustain the soul. Bibb plays in Seattle as part of the Seattle Summer Blues Festival, on July 9, 2009, at the Triple Door.

Special to The Seattle Times

Blues preview

Eric Bibb

With Daddy Treetops, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Triple Door, 216 Union St., Seattle; $24-$27 (206-838-4333 or www.thetripledoor.net).

Seattle Summer Blues Festival

Three nights of blues shows at the Triple Door start with the Bibb/Daddy Treetops bill on Thursday and continue though July 11. Festival passes cost $40; more information and tickets at the number and Web site above.

Listen

Eric Bibb: www.myspace.com/ericbibb

Eric Bibb is the rare bluesman whose music effortlessly spans Saturday-night revelry and Sunday- morning devotion. When he takes the stage, the sacred and profane intertwine as he taps into African-American music's enduring power to overcome hard times and sustain the soul.

"Music is a spiritual tool for survival and very early on I became aware of that connection," said Bibb, 57, who headlines a Thursday-night double bill with Daddy Treetops at the Triple Door, as part of the new Seattle Summer Blues Festival. "The music was first and foremost sustenance. It was also entertainment, but it primarily started out as a way for people to stay in touch with their divine roots and overcome incredibly difficult situations."

The son of folk singer and activist Leon Bibb, he was raised in a household suffused with music and politics. His uncle was the Modern Jazz Quartet's revered pianist/composer John Lewis, and the Bibb household regularly hosted leftist artists such as Pete Seeger, Odetta and Paul Robeson.

Obsessed with music as a teenager, Bibb would often feign illness to stay home from school so he could listen to records by folk greats like the New Lost City Ramblers, Josh White and Joan Baez. By 16, he was playing guitar in the house band for his father's popular TV talent show, "Someone New."

In the early 1970s, Bibb lit out for Paris, where he woodshedded to develop his blues chops. Later he moved to Sweden, becoming a key participant in Stockholm's vibrant music scene, while continuing his ardent study of Delta blues and other prewar styles. His own experience in the 1960s folk revival gave him a taste of music's free- flowing currents.

"I saw Sun House live at Newport when I was 14 and it imprinted really deep," Bibb said. "I recognized the real deal, but I grew up in an era when there was a degree of flexibility, when folk music could be everything from Lead Belly to singers from the Georgia Sea Islands to Dave Van Ronk and later Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens, and you could see them all on the same stage."

Bibb demonstrated his gift for reaching across genres on "Friends," his superb 2004 Telarc album featuring a parade of special guests including fellow blues troubadour Taj Mahal, Malian guitar legend Djelimady Tounkara, Hawaiian slack-key guitar master Led Ka'apana and Mali-born kora virtuoso Mamadou Diabate.

The same year, he joined forces with vocalist Maria Muldaur and fellow guitarist/vocalist Rory Block on "Sisters & Brothers," a blues session designed to lift the spirit.

His latest Telarc album, 2008's "Get Onboard," is another long step on his ongoing quest to find the crossroads where blues, gospel and soul music converge. Recorded in Nashville, the project features a cast of ace session musicians and special guests Bonnie Raitt — who contributes scorching slide- guitar work on "If Our Hearts Ain't In It" — and rising roots vocalist Ruthie Foster, who joins Bibb in a gentle duet.

More of a crooner than a blues shouter, Bibb delivers even his most intense material with an air of serene self-possession, as if completely confident in its power to banish despair.

One needn't be in dire straits to appreciate Bibb's music, of course; but its power stems from his recognition that music can affirm a people's humanity in the face of the most daunting trials.

Andrew Gilbert: jazzscribe@aol.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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