Maria Muldaur's timeless blues roots
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 30, 2002) – Maria Muldaur is probably best remembered for if not synonymous with her fluke 1974 pop hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” which remained a staple of FM radio for years after it had climbed to number six on the pop charts. But for a decade before her brief taste of fame and in the three decades since her brush with pop stardom, Muldaur has pursued a steady, modest career out of the limelight singing rootsy blues, gospel, folk and country music at the grassroots level.

Muldaur will perform at Club Helsinki (528-3394) next Thursday, May 9, at 9.

Growing up in ground zero of the folk-music revival, the Greenwich Village native was surrounded by American roots music – folk, jazz, blues, bluegrass and gospel. “I was a little girl trapped in the urban jungle,” she has said. Her first love was country music – she supposedly sang Kitty Wells’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” at age five accompanied by an aunt on piano.

Eventually, Maria D’Amato escaped to North Carolina, where she settled in for a time with Doc Watson’s family and absorbed Appalachian music and culture in nightly picking parties on Watson’s back porch.

Back in New York, Muldaur fell in with a musical crowd including John Sebastian and David Grisman, and wound up performing with the Even Dozen Jug Band, singing the early blues of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey under the tutelage of blues songstress Victoria Spivey. In 1964, Muldaur hooked up with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in Boston, and married bandmate Geoff Muldaur.

After a few years of musical and life partnership, the duo split, and Muldaur recorded her astonishingly successful debut in 1973, which included songs by Dolly Parton, Dan Hicks, Dr. John, Kate McGarrigle and Wendy Waldman.

Subsequent albums failed to do as well commercially, but during the 1980s and ‘90s, Muldaur continued to record albums of jazz, gospel and swing music, as well as blues, children’s and New Orleans music. These influences are heard throughout recent albums like 1998’s Southland of the Heart (Telarc).

Muldaur’s most recent album, Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain), was recently nominated for a Grammy Award, and brings her back full circle to the acoustic blues music that moved her as a young woman. The album features Muldaur collaborating with a host of folk-blues royalty, including John Sebastian, Bonnie Raitt, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Taj Mahal and Ernie Hawkins on songs by Memphis Minnie, Blind Willie Johnson, Bessie Smith and others.

Country-swing group Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem were a late addition to Club Helsinki’s schedule, performing there tonight at 9.

Hector on Stilts is an acoustic rock trio that recently relocated to the Berkshires from Tucson. Singer/guitarists Jeb and Clayton Colwell, who now call Lenox home, are cousins who come from a musical family – Jeb’s father, Paul, used to sit in with them on mandolin – and they have been playing together since age 13.

They’ve been writing songs since 1988, and last year released their first album, Pretty Please, consisting mostly of acoustically-rendered, classic-rock flavored songs on which the cousins harmonize like a latter-day version of Crosby and Nash. In concert, they perform backed by drummer Bruce Halper. Hector on Stilts is at Red in Pittsfield tonight, along with the Chris Collins Band. Hector on Stilts also performs at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket on May 31.

As a producer and pianist Kenny White has worked with an impressive array of folk-pop talents, including Marc Cohn, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Richard Shindell and Cheryl Wheeler. He has rocked out with Keith Richards, the Neville Brothers, and Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, and contributed music to four John Sayles films.

Given his resume, perhaps it’s not so surprising to find the likes of Colvin, Wolf and Cohn, as well as Bob Dylan multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and Mary Chapin Carpenter guitarist Duke Levine lending a hand to White on his solo debut recording, Uninvited Guest. Nor is it surprising that the album contains 11 original songs very much in the Colvin/Cohn folk-pop vein.

White is an unassuming vocalist whose gentle, almost whispery style seduces the listener in a conspiracy of jazzy intimacy. His skill as a musician and composer is readily apparent on songs like the piano ballad “The Beautiful Changes,” a bit of folk-jazz noir, a hazy, hangover memory that lyrically invokes Charlie Parker while musically offering surprises promised by the song’s title.

“Every Time You Walk Away” is introduced over a classy, classical string arrangement, while “In My Recurring Dream” is a nightmarish reverie powered by subtle, hip-hop-influenced percussion. Larry Campbell contributes fiddle to the country-flavored “One Step Up,” and Shawn Colvin takes a verse on the piano ballad, “In Our Hands.”

With its acoustic folk-pop sound and jazzy, urban Beat sensibility, Uninvited Guest is a quiet, nighttime album that would sit comfortably next to early Tom Waits and Carly Simon in a listener’s collection. White warms up the audience for Cheryl Wheeler at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Sunday at 7.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 3, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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