One hesitates to call this her best album yet, because the diversity of her art renders such statements inherently unfair—unfair, that is, if so many of the others weren’t of the same high caliber. Let’s leave it at another unqualified triumph of conception and execution, with a surplus of greasy, funky soul to recommend it. This music lives.
The Bluegrass Special
If anyone can claim to have been true to his or her roots, to have never lost the faith, and has the track record to prove it, it’s Maria Grazia Rosa Domenico D’Amato, better known to the music world as Maria Muldaur, having been performing and recording under her married name even after her marriage to Geoff Muldaur ended in 1972. By any name, this product of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City has compiled an enviable and admirable resume as a roots music acolyte, and as she proves on her wonderful, whimsically titled new jug band album, Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy, she’s just getting started. Truly better each time out, Muldaur has put a lot of distance between the sexy chanteuse who made 1973 so memorable by purring David Nichtern’s “Midnight At the Oasis” into classic status and the sexy earth mama of the past couple of decades when he exploration of the musical styles that inflamed her passions as a young girl has yielded an impressive catalogue of themed projects that have brought well deserved revitalization to some forgotten music and artists. After ending her major label career on Warner/Reprise in 1979 following five albums that were remarkably true to the spirit of her musical aesthetic even if they were mainstream slick (she, and the label, were trying for hits, after all), she made a huge personal statement in 1980 by emerging on the Takoma label with a powerhouse gospel outing with the Chambers Brothers, Gospel Nights. Since then, apart from the three years’ interregnum between 1987’s Live in London and 1990’s On the Sunny Side, she’s released an album every year or every other year, and what a ride it’s been: she’s explored jazz repeatedly, most notably on 1994’s Jazzabelle; paid tribute to Peggy Lee on A Woman Alone With the Blues (Remembering Peggy Lee) and her buddy from back in the day, Bob Dylan, on Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan; retooled kids’ songs in swing fashion on three albums for the Music For Little People label (highly recommended: 2002’s Animal Crackers In My Soup: The Songs of Shirley Temple); done some deep archeological digs into the blues, especially that made by the female artists she’s always admired, including her idol Memphis Minnie, whose spirit—in the form of Muldaur’s saucy, no-nonsense but tender-hearted attitude—informs much of her work these days but is heard most profoundly on 2001’s celebrated Richland Woman Blues, an album that yielded two acclaimed sequels devoted primarily to the music of female blues artists of yore, 2005’s Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul and 2007’s smoky, swinging and aptly titled Naughty, Bawdy and Blue; assembled a powerhouse team of her favorite female artists—including Odetta, Joan Baez, Holly Near, Bonnie Raitt, and Phoebe Snow, among others—to raise their voices in protest against war on last year’s Yes We Can!; tipped her hat in righteously fervent passion to New Orleans on 1992’s Louisiana Love Call, with key assists from two of the Crescent City’s foremost musical practitioners, Allen Toussaint and Dr John; and even continued to evolve the folk/rock/blues sound of her Warner Brothers’ recordings on efforts such as her 1998 Southland Of the Heart, which brought her back together with the Chambers Brothers but also included covers of songs by Greg Brown and Bruce Cockburn (the title track).
Which brings us to Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy. The Robert Crumb-influenced cover art by Neil Osborne evokes both the whimsy and the sensuality of the artist and the music, and not least of all the elevated spirits of all engaged in this endeavor—even the few downbeat numbers can’t help being a bit cheery in the end. Muldaur sings it like she swings it, with authority, smoldering passion and a true believer’s conviction. Typical of her approach, the project reunites her with old friends and introduces some new, younger ones cut from the same cloth. In this case, the familiar names joining the fray loom large in her history: David Grisman and John Sebastian, who, before they became bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll legends, respectively, were the young Maria’s compadres in the Even Dozen Jug Band back in the Village; Taj Mahal, a pronounced presence on both Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul and Richland Woman Blues, is back on banjo and guitar; and Dan Hicks, Muldaur’s neighbor in Mill Valley, CA, but more important a long-time collaborator (who had a song on Muldaur’s debut album, and from whose song “Sweetheart” came the title of he second album, Waitress In a Donut Shop) contributes two original songs, including the album opening, “The Diplomat,” which features some wonderful, idiomatic (idiomatic of the ‘30s, that is) lyrical wordplay, and the suggestive laid-back blues of “Let It Simmer,” but also engages Muldaur in some of the most suggestive (and apparently extemporaneous) repartee this side of Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep on the by-turns warm and seductive/frantic and heated medley of “Life’s Too Short/When Elephants Roost In Bamboo Trees.” On this cut, in fact, it’s evident Muldaur still possesses that perky, innocent “Midnight At the Oasis” voice, but she’s now a vital, 66-year-old who projects, vocally and physically, a mature, worldly sexiness that says “Only Real Men Need Apply.” Not that she doesn’t have an eye for the younger generation—or an ear. Meet one Kit Stovepipe, of the Seattle-area Crow Quill Night Owls jug band (the introduction to which opened Muldaur’s eyes to a burgeoning, international jug band revival). Stovepipe, a marvelous ragtime guitar player, also sits in on jug and washboard, and beyond that introduced Muldaur to a raft of new old music through his collection of vintage 78s. You can imagine that with players such as these on board the album boasts a down-home sound, and so it does, with other players such as fiddler Suzy Thompson (who saws away so evocatively on a swaggering treatment of the Mississippi Sheiks’ “He Calls That Religion”) and horn players Bob Schwartz (trumpet) and Kevin Porter (trombone), making their mark as well. Among the other highlights: a faithful, horn-rich rendition of “The Ghost of The St. Louis Blues,” originally cut in the mid-‘20s by the blackface Minstrel Man from Georgia, Emmett Miller, otherwise known for recording the original version of “Lovesick Blues” and being cited by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Bob Wills’s great lead singer, Tommy Duncan, as their principal vocal influence (Duncan was hired on the spot when he told Wills, a major Miller fan himself, of his high regard for Miller’s singing style); a raggedy, stomping blues powered by shambling acoustic guitar and Suzy Thompson’s energetic fiddling, “Shout You Cats,” from the pen of Hezekiah Jones in 1931; and closing the album, a pair of songs unnervingly suited to the temper of the times in blues woman Martha Copeland’s dark, brooding--and self-explanatory--“Bank Failure Blues,” written at least a year ahead of the Crash of ’29, and, signing off, another Hezekiah Jones song, 1931’s “The Panic Is On,” which could hardly be more appropriate to the current day with lyrics such as “what this country’s comin’ to/I sure would like to know/if they don’t do somethin’ by and by/the rich will live and the poor will die/doggone, I mean the panic is on…” In the final verse Muldaur updates the lyrics to, “Them greedy politicians ruined everything/but now I’m here to sing/Obama’s in the White House saying ‘Yes, we can’/I know he gonna come up with a real good plan/then doggone, hard times will be gone…,” going out on a high note of good feeling appropriate to an album chock full of same, fueled by the delightful give-and-take instrumental dialogue between John Sebastian’s baritone guitar and Kit Stovepipe’s National. One hesitates to call this her best album yet, because the diversity of her art renders such statements inherently unfair—unfair, that is, if so many of the others weren’t of the same high caliber. Let’s leave it at another unqualified triumph of conception and execution, with a surplus of greasy, funky soul to recommend it. This music lives.