February 2011

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As a music fan it’s inevitable that one speculates, in various ways, about the state of mind of the performer. One of the most basic and unanswerable questions to ask is what creative mood inspired the particular performance.

It’s always fun to listen to a recording and have the sense that the musician was creatively inspired in some way and perhaps even surprised themselves while making it. With the constant demand for novelty in pop music there’s no shortage of opportunities to hear somebody taking a step into a new creative direction — sometimes successfully and sometimes not, and the feel of somebody who’s perhaps a little unsure of themselves but also with the spark of doing something new.

I was reminded recently that it can be equally interesting when somebody is doing something familiar but without any sense of it having become routine. A while back RS gave me a copy of Booker’s Guitar by Eric Bibb, and I’ve just been getting around to listening to it and have been impressed. It’s a good example of material which feel very present and felt, while also feeling like he has a deep familiarity with the music.

The story behind the album (and album title) is that Eric Bibb had a fan come up to him after a show ans ask if he wanted to play the guitar that had been owned by Bukka White. However that incident inspired this album, it feels to me less like finding new musical territory than re-discovering the pleasures and the depth of music. And I say this not having heard anything by Bibb prior to this.

I would say that it’s a very serious album, not because the mood is unhappy, but in the sense of an intense interior focus.

For example, “New Home“, has a classic blues feel, played with a real richness. And then you have something like “Wayfaring Stranger” which feels meditative in a good way.

After I listened to the Emmylou Harris version of “Wayfaring Stranger” I looked up a number of different performances on youtube and, in general, I was surprised at how may of them I didn’t like. I think it’s such a beautiful tune that I resisted performances that are too forward or like too performance oriented — for example the Neko Case cover which isn’t a bad performance, but just doesn’t feel right to me). Listening to Bibb’s version I felt like it delivered exactly what I wanted in a performance of the song which was one that honors the emotion of the song but also feels responsive to the internal experience of being a musician and playing and singing such a perfect melody. Listening to it I feel like I can just inhabit the song and that he’s right there too, in the music and in that moment.

Update: It strikes me that this is one case in which I am particularly glad that I have the ability to share a copy of the recording as well as write about it. I don’t feel like I’ve precisely described what it is that I like about the recordings, but I know that there is the artifact itself which may be helpful towards understanding my description. Technology does have its benefits.

I was struck reading the following paragraph from Timothy Burke that it described quite nicely a challenge that I find in my writing about music:

Go ahead, think about it for a minute. Why is one work of literature great and another not so much? For that matter, why is a work of high culture great compared to a work of popular culture? (Or is it?) The answers to those questions are never obvious. If you think you can tell me in a paragraph why Moby Dick is a greater work of literature than Northanger Abbey, I don’t think you really know what you’re talking about, even though I’d completely agree with the sentiment.

I frequently use the word “great” in my writing and, in general, the songs that I select to post here are ones that I think are exceptional. But I also think that it’s difficult to describe precisely what makes on recording great, and even more difficult to say that it’s more or less great than another.

The challenge of trying to write about that is what prompted me to start the blog in the first place, but it’s nice to reflect occasionally on the fact that it is a difficult task and that it’s appropriate to maintain a level of humility.

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