Bob Gibson,
The Bob Gibson Legacy Edition
(independent, 2008)

Bob Gibson,
The Living Legend Years
(independent, 2008)

In 1954, a young salesman of developmental reading products heard Pete Seeger play. After meeting Seeger, he recognized that music, not sales, was his calling, so Bob Gibson woodshedded on the banjo and guitar and emerged as a folk artist. He was almost immediately successful and, by 1957, had become the house band at Chicago's famous Gate of Horn club, starting as the opening act for established folk acts and becoming, after a few months, the headliner, a position he held for more than a year. Later, he said, it was that time at the Gate of Horn that turned him into a performer, teaching him how to build a set, choose and write songs, and make an audience feel like part of the show.

Those were lessons well learned because by the beginning of the 1960s, he'd become a star, having released three albums on Riverside Records, a jazz label, and was doing television regularly, a rarity for a folk act, as well as playing top clubs around the country. He even recorded a live album at Carnegie Hall.

Then Gibson became fascinated by the possibilities and potentials of the 12-string guitar, signed with Electra Records and started the folk boom of the early '60s. During the boom years, it was impossible to pick up an album by any folk artist without finding at least one of his songs on it. Among his songs from this period are such classics as "Well, Well, Well," "Fog Horn," "Stella's Got a New Dress," "The New Frankie & Johnny Song," "Fancy Ladies," "Abilene" and "John Riley."

If performing and writing was all he'd ever done, his reputation would be secure, but Gibson was also a mentor, introducing and helping develop new talent. He discovered Judy Collins, bringing her to the Gate of Horn, and found Joan Baez, inviting her to sing with him as the Newport Folk Festival. In 1961, he formed a management company, so that he could bring the young folksingers to a wider audience. His initial clients? Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, David Crosby and Ritchie Havens.

Also in 1961, he brought Hamilton Camp to the Gate of Horn to sing with him; together they recorded Gibson & Camp at the Gate of Horn, the first folk album to go gold. A couple of years later, he co-wrote. "That's the Way It's Going to Be" with Phil Ochs.

It was a golden time for Gibson but he managed to turn it to brass, developing a drug problem that increasingly interfered with his career. He became unreliable and erratic. By the late '60s, the industry was writing him off. He recorded one album for Capitol Records, calling on old friends like Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Stephen Stills to help him out, but the disc turned out to be a good news-bad news joke. The good news was that it got great reviews and generated fresh interest in Gibson; the bad news was that the album included a cover of John Prine's "Sam Stone" and Prine's record company, wanting him to have the hit on it, withdrew the license on the song. Capitol pulled the album and Gibson's light seemed to have gone out.

In 1974 he began a comeback, and over the next decade recorded the albums included in this legacy reissue set. Though the first few year of his comeback were touch and go as he struggled with his demons, he eventually successfully faced them down and reestablished himself as one of the formative talents of contemporary folk music. In this period, he recorded four of the best albums of his career, all on vinyl, and none were ever until now reissued on CD. When vinyl disappeared, they did also. Meridian Green, Gibson's daughter, has brought them back into print as the Bob Gibson Legacy Edition. (A fifth album is a collection of highlights from the set, with three new songs.)

Since the music is so intertwined with the artist's life, it only makes sense to discuss the albums in context of Gibson's life. In 1974, when he first decided to try to re-establish himself, Gibson recognized that, given his experience with record companies, he would be better off starting his own label, a move that is now standard among folk performers but was then a radical departure from the way things were done. Funky in the Country, the 1974 album he released on his own Legend Enterprises label, is a live set recorded at Chicago's Amazing Grace. It features Gibson on 12-string guitar and John Guth on lead 6-string, although designating Guth as the lead guitar isn't always accurate since both men step out front. With one exception, all of the songs are Gibson compositions.

The set gets off to a flying start with "Cindy Dreams of California," a song that features some of the best acoustic guitar playing you will ever hear, as Gibson's 12-string booms out chords and bass runs while Guth plays intricate solo patterns above Gibson's rhythm. It's an amazing song.

He then slows it down with the only song he didn't write, Shel Silverstein's "I Never Got to Know Her Very Well," before picking it up again with a blues number. As the album progresses, you hear Gibson at his set building best, always varied in tempo and tone, but always with plenty of room for the musicians to cook, taking lengthy solos. Guth and Gibson play off of each other beautifully. It's an amazing piece of work, one that I've been listening to consistently since 1974 without ever becoming bored by it.

The album drew rave reviews, with Billboard calling Gibson one of the finest singers in American folk history. Gibson set up a full schedule of shows and signings to kick off the album but, unfortunately, his first stop was in rehab. By the time he got out four months later, the momentum was gone.

It took four years to get another album in the can. 1961's Gibson & Camp at the Gate of Horn not only went gold but became a cult classic, still in print today. Although the singing partnership broke up, when Camp, a former child actor and a master of improvisation, chose to pursue acting, the two of them still got together at festivals and concerts for occasional shows. In 1978, they decided to do another album together for Mountain Railroad Records. The result, Homemade Music, is a fabulous tour through the contemporary American folk genre, saluting the best songwriters on the scene today. The pair do Steve Goodman's "Looking for Trouble," Michael Smith's "Spoon River" and Douglas Steiger's "Light Up My Lady," along with a handful of Gibson originals. Again, Gibson plays 12-string while Camp plays 6-string and harmonica. Producer Dick Rosmini contributes all of the additional instrumentation, playing tasteful fills on mandolin, dobro, steel guitar and even few little touches on a synthesizer. Gibson and Camp were born to sing together; each is a fabulous singer, but placed together they generate a magic that no other duo that I can think of can touch. Listen closely and you'll hear instances where neither one is singing the melody, where both are taking harmony parts that only suggest a melody. Both men are not only fine singers but fine performers who play off of each other like actors in the big scene of a play they both love.

Homemade Music gives us two masters at the top of their game.

By this time, Gibson had his problems under control. Clean and sober, he resumed touring and in 1980 issued another live album, The Perfect High. By now, he had regained enough confidence in himself and his sobriety to let his sense of humor loose, with himself mostly as the butt of the jokes. "Just a Thing I Do" is about a bad experience he had with a lady but actually it takes on universal overtones; it is about all of the times that we've all fallen madly in love with people who only wanted to have a good time. In "Mendocino Outlaws," he gives us a couple of middle-aged men out trying to relive their youth on a wild night, while the brilliant "Box of Candy & a Piece of Fruit" has its origins in the time when Gibson spent the Christmas season in a Toronto jail, with nothing to look forward to but the appearance of the Salvation Army Santa Claus.

In the middle of this fun and games approach, though, Gibson drops three very serious and very fine songs "Army of Children," "Rock Me Sweet Jesus" and "Heavenly Choir." Anne Hills sings harmony and Tom Paxton provides backing vocals, as well as dueting on "Box of Candy...." The highlight of the album,.though, is the title track, a six-minute recitation of a madly hilarious Shel Silverstein poem about the search of a druggie named Get 'Em Up Roy for the perfect high. While you're laughing at the extent to which Roy will go to get loaded, you'll begin to realize that what you're listening to is a strong anti-drug message delivered to you by a man who knows exactly what he's talking about. (Gibson was very proud of the fact that the song was used in as part of an anti-drug program in the Chicago public schools.)

The Perfect High is pretty much the perfect album, again recorded live before enthusiastic audiences at Chicago's Charlotte's Web and the Earl of Old Town clubs. It is by turns hilarious, touching, angry and whimsical -- sometimes in the same song.

The final album in this package, Uptown Saturday Night is another studio album, this time accompanied by a full band, with Anne Hills again helping out on background and harmony vocals. This one isn't organized thematically, being content to be a collection of songs. Again, all but one are Gibson originals and again the one he didn't write comes from Silverstein. It opens with a song about reconciliation, "Let the Band Play Dixie," in which Abraham Lincoln, asked what he intends to do with the defeated rebels, answers that intends to unite the nation and asks that the band play "Dixie." The song is from a play Gibson wrote and performed in, but it seems to be a reflection of his desire for harmony and peace, a desire that provides a motif for the album. "Lookin' for the You in Someone New" is a beautiful love song in which the speaker realizes that he has spent all of his time trying to find another version of the woman he loves and has finally come to realize that he had what he sought in his hands the whole time. The highlight of the album, however, is "Pilgrim," a song about the universal search for the self. It is Gibson's summation of what he learned in recovery. The song has become an anthem for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Again, it's a fine piece of work, strong enough to land Gibson a deal with Island Records, for whom he recorded his final album, Making a Mess, before his death in 1994.

These records, long missing, are finally here again and that is cause for celebration. Producer Meridian Green has done a fine job with the reissues -- the packaging is beautiful, the sound crisp and balanced. Examining the discs and listening to them shows you that this was a labor of love and the effort has paid off. You can sample the project by ordering the single disc Bob Gibson: The Living Legend Years, which offers a range of music from the four CDs, along with three new songs, one of which is another Gibson and Camp duet. You might as well go ahead and buy the package, though, because after you hear the sampler, you're going to want it.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

24 January 2009

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