Blues for the Berkshires
Blues in the Berkshires: Geoff Muldaur, Susan Angeletti, Jeff King

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 18, 2002) – Once again, blues music has a near lock on area nightclubs, with shows by blues belter Susan Angeletti, the Jeff King Trio and blues legend Geoff Muldaur, among others this coming weekend and into next week.

Geoff Muldaur’s career reads like a history of folk-blues of the last 40 years. Muldaur, who performs at Club Helsinki next Thursday, March 28, emerged on the Cambridge scene in the early-‘60s, where he teamed up with Jim Kweskin in the latter’s Jug Band. Kweskin wound up marrying the group’s fiddle palyer, Maria D’Amato, better known as Maria Muldaur (who comes to Club Helsinki on May 9). When they moved to Woodstock, Muldaur hooked up with Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield, recording with both in the Blues Project and on other albums. Along the way, he worked with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, the Everly Brothers, Sippie Wallace and John Sebastian.

Muldaur’s own albums are veritable catalogs of American roots music, including country, gospel, rags, folk ballads and even an occasional original song or two. Recent albums like Password and The Secret Handshake – the latter aptly subtitled “American Music: Blues and Gospel” – also boast a who’s who of roots music instrumentalists, including Dave Alvin, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Greg Leisz, Richard Greene, Stephen Bruton, David Lindley, David Grisman, Howard Johnson and Kaz Kazanoff. The horn-laced arrangements resemble what The Band might well have sounded like had it stayed together and played traditional songs by the likes of Dock Boggs, Charley Patton and Leadbelly.

Muldaur is best known for his distinctive vocals. He has a relaxed, natural style and delivery, both sweet and full of raw grit that whispers, howls and fleetly swoops into the upper registers. Richard Thompson, the great English folk-rock guitarist and songwriter, has said, “There are only three white blues singers, and Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them.”

Muldaur doesn’t just play old songs the way they appear on old records, however. He is a distinctive stylist who finds a deep groove and uncovers as many melodic possibilities as he can mine from an old tune. It’s a process he has called “Muldaurizing,” and on recording it often involves unusual instrumentations and creating new musical contexts for traditional material.

Entrain is at Helsinki tomorrow night. The eclectic, groove-based band celebrates the release of its latest album, Live Vol. 1: Rise Up (Dolphin Safe), which showcases the Martha’s Vineyard-based group’s funky rhythms and blend of rock, reggae, ska, r&b and world-beat jams.

Speaking of world-beat jams, Garaj Mahal is a rare groove band that can claim legitimate jazz and world-beat lineage, and you can hear the difference on the group’s incessantly funky CD, Live at the Rainbow. The quartet is practically a self-contained United Nations of groove, featuring black/German bassist Kai Eckhardt, who has played with John McLaughlin, Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Bill Evans, among others, and Pakistani/Chilean guitarist Fareed Haque, who has played with Sting, Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Cassandra Wilson and numerous classical ensembles. Rounding out the group is Bay Area drummer Alan Hertz, and Chicago keyboardist Eric Levy. Garaj Mahal is at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Thursday.

Most white women who sing the blues model themselves after Janis Joplin, but few can pull it off. Often they wind up sounding forced or even shrill in the process. Based on Susan Angeletti’s CD, Next Year’s Model of the Blues, she avoids that pitfall. In part it’s because Angeletti knows how to hold back – as important as knowing when to let loose. But also it’s because she has a versatile, soulful voice which seems to have learned as much from Tina Turner and Bonnie Raitt as it has from Joplin. She also evinces the control of a jazz singer, and it comes as no surprise that Nina Simone is one of her personal favorites.

Most of the songs on Next Year’s Model were written by producer John Sheldon, of Amherst, who once played with Van Morrison. The album includes a version of Morrison’s “Domino,” one Willie Dixon cover and an acknowledgment of the Joplin debt in a steaming version of “Half Moon” (written, incidentally, by John Hall, ex- of Orleans, who recently performed in the Pittsfield FolkFest, and his wife, Johanna).

Angeletti, who lives in the Pioneer Valley, has played the House of Blues in Los Angeles, the Fillmore in San Francisco, the Bottom Line in New York, Toad’s Place in New Haven and the Iron Horse in Northampton. She has been touring on and off with Texas bluesman Johnny Winter for the last three years. She has another album in the can, recorded in Nashville and produced by Boston drummer/songwriter Tom Hambridge, who also produced Susan Tedeschi’s Grammy-nominated blues album, Just Won’t Burn. The album features several of Angeletti’s own compositions.

Angeletti performs with her band on Friday night at Red in Pittsfield. The Jeff King Trio, a local outfit whose eponymous frontman is the Berkshires’ answer to Delbert McClinton, is at the Lion’s Den in Stockbridge on Friday.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 23, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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