Geoff Muldaur & The Texas Sheiks,
Geoff Muldaur & The Texas Sheiks
(Tradition & Moderne, 2009)

Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy,
Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy
(Stony Plain, 2009)

The musical and marital partnership of Geoff and Maria Muldaur ended its run in the early 1970s, but here, by happy chance, their separate new releases arrive in the same mail. Even more remarkably, they're both jug-band discs marking returns to their roots in a style that first brought them to popular attention. Maria (as fiddler Maria D'Amato) goes back to the Even Dozen Jug Band, then to the later Jim Kweskin Jug Band, where Geoff was already a noteworthy guitarist. Since then, both have continued to tour, record and explore the same American roots stew of blues, folk, hokum, sacred, jazz and vintage pop.

Jug-band music (JBM) encompasses all of those, but in its original incarnation in the 1920s, as a Southern urban-street music with rural references, it was an African-American genre. It was a good-time music, sly and humorous, not in short a vehicle with which to examine the darker side of human existence as was its contemporary, the Delta blues. JBM is roughly analogous to, if less musically sophisticated than, the Western swing that was soon to sweep the southwestern section of the nation. Jug bands and Western-swing outfits had an occasionally overlapping repertoire. The folk revival brought JBM back, if not quite from death, at least off life support.

Maria Muldaur's Garden of Joy (reprising the title of a fondly recalled 1967 Kweskin Jug Band album on, um, Reprise) incorporates the first JBM revival (John Sebastian and David Grisman, bandmates from the Even Dozens, are here) and the current revival (Kit Stovepipe and the Crow Quill Night Owls). If this sounds can't-miss to you, you'd be right; the bull's eye is struck precisely. Like her ex, Maria Muldaur is a pro too seasoned to shoot wide of the mark.

It is, even so, a relief to find that she remains fully engaged with what she does, still manifestly adores what drew her to the stage more than four decades ago. From the opener, Dan Hicks' "The Diplomat," to the closer, the Depression-era "The Panic is On," the exuberant good humor, naughty word play and superior musicality never fail. She adds a new last verse to "Panic": "Obama's in the White House sayin' 'Yes we can' / I know he's gonna come up with a real good plan." Let's hope so.

Though there are some jokey cuts, Geoff Muldaur & The Texas Sheiks is -- or at least feels like -- a more somber take on the JBM tradition. That becomes immediately apparent upon the appearance of the first song, the Mississippi Sheiks' classic "The World is Going Wrong." (Bob Dylan covered it as "World Gone Wrong" on his 1993 CD of the same name.) The quality falters at no point, nor -- given the depth of talent brought to the job -- would one expect it to. Yet there is no question that the performances that linger longest in the mental ear are those that refuse to give a poor heart ease: brooding readings, with richly imagined arrangements, of deep folk-blues such as "Cairo" (a hellish vision which groans with brutal, tortured imagery, Geoff's voice ricocheting between menacing and terror-stricken) and Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside" (with a memorably convincing vocal by Johnny Nicholas).

Geoff has assembled some first-rate players into the Texas Sheiks, not least fiddler/accordionist Suzy Thompson and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar. At times the Sheiks transcend the JBM format and touch Western swing ("Fan It"), popular ragtime ("All by Myself") and, conversely, a sound that calls up the ghosts of older, pre-20th-century African-American string bands. Jim Kweskin himself shows up to sing a few hokum numbers: "Blues in the Bottle," "Under the Chicken Tree," "Fan It." As Dylan avers in a recent song, it's all good.

review by
Jerome Clark

14 November 2009

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