We live in a golden age of woman’s blues music. The abundance and variety of talent is simply astounding. There’s great new school players and shouters like Susan Tedeschi and Shemekia Copeland, old school soul blues singers like Etta James, Koko Taylor, and Betty Lavette, classic stalwarts of regional Americana styles like Marcia Ball, Rory Block, and Sue Foley and many, many others who perform hundreds of live dates every year and have released a steady stream of terrific albums. In light of this ample supply of artistry, overlooking how good we have it is understandable. Thus, the neglect of Maria Muldaur should not seem surprising. She’s been a regular on the blues circuit for dozens of years, who has issued more than 30 highly respected records that receive occasional Grammy or W.C. Handy award nominations, but she’s still most recognized for her pop hits of the early ‘70s (i.e., “Midnight at the Oasis”, “Don’t You Feel My Leg”). Muldaur deserves better. In France the government would give her a medal, or in England she’d be dubbed a lady of the realm or something, but in America she’s just another neglected genius who keeps the nation’s cultural heritage alive and burning.
Muldaur paid tribute to early blues pioneers on her last album, Richland Woman Blues. Her latest release, Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul, continues in this vein as she honors Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and other ground breakers by performing top-notch renditions of some of their most compelling songs. Muldaur began her career singing the blues as a teenager some 40 years ago as a member of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. The experience of age has given her a deep sense of what the songs really mean. Muldaur doesn’t prettify the music, or condescend to recreate some scratchy 78-rpm version, she inhabits the songs and makes them her own.
Consider her cover of Smith’s classic “Empty Bed Blues”. It takes a lot of chutzpah to record a song so identified with one of the 20th century’s greatest singers. Muldaur doesn’t flinch. She captures the world-weariness of a woman who knows she’s lost a good thing, and that thing mean’s good sex more than a good man (although the two are certainly intertwined). Even in this sophisticated age, the primitive double entendres come off as down and dirty. “He boiled my first cabbage / He made it awful hot / Lord, when he put in the bacon / It overflowed the pot,” Muldaur coos. Talk about home cookin’! The throaty vocals convey the recollected feelings of passion.
Muldaur employs some first rate assistance on this all-acoustic album, which includes the 91-year-old pianist Pinetop Perkins on Julia Lee’s sultry “Decent Woman Blues” (“I’m learning to be bad, bad, bad”), Earth mother Tracy Nelson on the duet originally done by Bessie Smith and Clara Smith, “I’m Goin’ Back” (“Girl, you know he ain’t been treating me right / I’m goin’ back to my used to be”) and new sensation Alvin Youngblood Hart on Memphis Minnie’s “She Put Me Outdoors” (“While I wouldn’t mind accomodatin’ you / But I got me another man”). She conveys a rough and bawdy persona who puts herself first, no man or woman is gonna stand in her way.
Blues guitar pickers Del Rey and Steve James accompany Muldaur on almost half of the tracks, and Taj Mahal sings and plays on another three. This supplies a consistency of tone throughout the disc. Rey plays in a syncopated style that allows Muldaur to concentrate on the melody and emote while he supplies the rhythms. Meanwhile James provides frills to decorate what’s going on with a bit of flair. They make songs like “Long As I See You Smile”, evocative of a sweet Southland that maybe never existed outside of song, sound inviting nonetheless. Mahal imparts a deeper presence with his low voice and rambling fingering. He and Muldaur do a marvelous version of a song made popular by the vaudeville duo from the ‘20s and ‘30s, Butterbeans and Suzy, called “Ain’t What You Used to Have”. It’s somehow appropriate that these former major label stars from more than three decades ago tell each other that glory days of the past don’t matter, just what you’re doing now. “I don’t even want to hear / What it was all about,” Muldaur croons to Mahal, who knowingly responds, “It’s past history / That doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.” The thing is, what they are doing now reveals that both artists are at the top of their game. They sound better than ever.
They also do a great job on their other two cuts Mahal performs on. They sing Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel tune “Take a Stand” with one voice. Their spirited and forthright effort makes one want to head to church and get religion. However, the title cut is even better and makes one want to be bad. On “Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul”, Muldaur’s former mate from the Jim Kweskin band, Fritz Richmond, blows on the jug, Suzy Thompson saws on the fiddle, and Mahal plays a funky banjo while Muldaur sings of her decision at an early age to always give everybody sweet love. “The blues are just somethin’ you can’t explain,” she sings soothingly as she prepares to give good love. Muldaur pretends innocence, but she’s being naughty and knows it.
// Notes from the Road
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