Maria Muldaur sings the blues
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 10, 2002) – The best way to deal with an albatross is just to cast it off your neck, which is what Maria Muldaur did in her first set at Club Helsinki on Thursday night. Perhaps best known for the faux-tropical 1970s pop hit “Midnight at the Oasis,” Muldaur made no reference to that aspect of her career, instead focusing exclusively on her main passion for 40 years: the blues.
Muldaur came into music via the same gate that attracted so many urban types of her generation: the ‘60s folk revival, which had a strong component of blues. Having grown up in Greenwich Village, she was only a few blocks from ground zero, where guitar-strumming blues and folksingers abounded in Washington Square Park. On that scene, and in a contemporaneous one in Cambridge -- where she wound up sharing stages with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and soon-to-be-husband Geoff Muldaur – Muldaur found her way to a modicum of success before being temporarily diverted by her fluke brush with fame.
By the 1980s, Muldaur was back on course, recording albums of blues, gospel and New Orleans music, and she showcased these influences before a standing-room-only audience. With her crackerjack, three-piece band already on stage and having warmed up the crowd with a few tunes of its own, Muldaur made a grand, blues diva-like entrance through the audience from the club’s front door, and growled and hissed her way through “I’m a W-O-M-A-N,” a Koko Taylor-style New Orleans-inflected r&b stomper.
The guitar-keyboards-drum trio brought the easygoing, loose-limbered feel of The Band to Muldaur’s slow, sizzling rendition of Levon Helm’s “Blues So Bad.” On the gospel-blues number “Get Up, Get Ready,” which she originally recorded with the Chambers Brothers, the musicians filled in effectively on harmonies while Muldaur exercised her vocal chops, showing off her dynamic range and emphasizing the character of her voice, which showed no signs of deterioration but rather only deepened in coloration.
Occasionally, however, Muldaur seemed to fade in and out of focus, the powerful music nearly overwhelming her on a few numbers where she seemed to be just going through the motions. There was no doubting her love for songs like Memphis Minnie’s “Won’t You Be My Chauffeur,” a jaunty blues given a rockabilly arrangement with a hint of jazz. Either the keyboards were too loud or Muldaur had peaked too soon, because she seemed to bury himself so deep inside this song and a few others that it was hard to find her in there.
Maybe she was just saving up for her the big finale of her first set, a version of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” A Ray Charles-style gospel blues, Muldaur wrung every bit of drama out of the number, testifying up and down the octaves, bringing the band and the room to the heights of spiritual ecstasy and to the deep down, moaning lows of the blues. It was the sort of moment of which long-lasting audience memories are made.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 11, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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