If, when you hear the name Maria Muldaur, you think only of the 1974 song ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, then you have missed out! Before we take a look at her 43rd (yes, 43rd) album let’s try and summarise her long and distinguished career in blues, soul and jazz but not forgetting that she started out in 1963 with the Even Dozen Jug Band before joining the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, where she met Geoff Muldaur, married him and retained the name after they split in 1972. There followed numerous blues-tinged solo albums, guest appearances (try her vocals with the Grateful Dead and offshoot, The Gerry Garcia Band, or her lead vocal on The Doobie Brothers song I Cheat The Hangman for example). Her last release was 2018’s Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker, which is also close to my heart…read the brand new Doodle-zine out on June 30th for more!) That she was steeped in what Maria refers to, very descriptively, as “Old Timey Music” and the jug band phenomenon, in particular, is an important part of her latest release.
Jug bands can be an acquired taste as they do have someone playing a jug (blowing over the mouth of (often) a whiskey jug) plus a mix of conventional and homemade instruments. Amongst these you can expect to hear such things as tea-chest bass, washboard, spoons, bones, stovepipe, and the ubiquitous comb and tissue paper…basically anything that could be banged, blown or strung and plucked. My introduction to the jug band sound came courtesy of Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers who began recording in 1928 and have an infectious, fun and serious take on blues, country and jazz that, once you get it, it becomes revelatory. Interesting to note also that the famous Walk Right In song is Gus Cannon composition from 1929.
The jug band heritage is far ranging and should be considered when looking back at how blues developed and influenced many players and helped the genre spread. It is pleasing to know that this ‘tradition’ is still kept alive by a number of musicians today: step forward Tuba Skinny. Formed in in 2009, they began as a loose collective of street musicians but soon evolved into a dedicated ensemble celebrating the traditional New Orleans sound; spirituals, Depression-era blues, ragtime and traditional jazz, all inform their music and they have quite a few albums to their name too.
So what do they sound like together? The first track reveals all as they go straight for the jugular (sorry, had to be said!) with an update on the fabulously named Goofus Five song, I Like You Best of All…the original had the “I Like Pie, I Like Cake” prefix and was recorded around 1927 and I can see why they chose it…fun, fitting and foot-tapping, typical of the jug band style. Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, ‘goofus’ is a name for a sort of toy saxophone more correctly known as a Couesnophone. Maria sings with a little vibrato that suits the song and, were it not for the crystal clear recording, it could well have been the 20s again…the Tuba replaces the jug but the Skinnys do a great job and you will be smiling during this…and every song here.
Next is a song by the lesser-known Lill Hardin Armstrong; perhaps she never really moved out of the shadow of being Louis Armstrong’s (second) wife, although she did collaborate on a number of his recordings… Let’s Get Happy Together from 1938 was with her ‘Swing Orchestra’ and Maria does a more jazzed version with the TS band giving it verve, vim and vigour (other scouring powders available). Fun is again the keyword.
The rather autobiographical song, Be Your Natural Self, is a song from Frankie ‘Half Pint’ Jaxon…an interesting character to say the least. His nickname came from being 5’2” and he was a vaudeville performer who sometimes appeared as a man, and sometimes a woman; released in 1940, it is lyrically as relevant today as it was back then and interpreted very well by Maria and the Tubas. Duke Ellington and his Orchestra with Ivy Anderson on vocals is the source for the Alex Hill penned song, Delta Bound…not delta blues but more jug jazz blues and, with the tuba and clarinet rejoicing in the slow rhythm, it is executed perfectly. Swing You Sinners was first recorded in 1935 by Valaida Snow, known as “Little Louis,” and was referred to by Louis Armstrong as “the second-best trumpet player in the world”, and is a new name to me, probably because jazz isn’t my usual musical libation. Maria does do it justice and the trumpet triumph of the original is reflected well too.
He Ain’t Got Rhythm is a familiar, via Billie Holiday, Irving Berlin song that lends itself very well to this update and you can’t deny the whole band certainly has got rhythm. Got the South in My Soul is New Orleans in every sense; originally done by The Boswell Sisters from that very city, it has the street march feel that I love, and then it picks up the pace a little for the band to share the fun. I Go for That has, as a source, the lady that graced most of the Hope and Crosby ‘Road to…’ films: Dorothy Lamour. Before hitting the big screen, and after moving from another New Orleans, she was spotted and hired by Herbie Kay, the bandleader and so began a few years of touring and singing. This song was from one of her earlier films (St. Louis Blues) released in 1939. Here it gets the jug treatment but retains the jovial nature (and clever lyrics) of the original in a neat reading. Patience & Fortitude is another song from Valaida Snow from 1946 (a great video is on the internet of her performing this with the Alibaba Trio)…flows from the previous track as they are very similar in bounce and structure…more amusing lyrics handled very well by Maria and the band.
Some Sweet Day revisits Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon on one of his compositions from around 1939. This is reminiscent of the great New Orleans street bands and is handled great, although a banjo solo opportunity was passed up I feel! Big City Blues was recorded by Annette Hanshaw in 1929. She was hugely successful on the radio and sold millions of records with her smooth jazz style and that translates well here as the band remains faithful whilst still putting a bit of jug into it.
The closing track, Road of Stone is by the sister of the great Victoria Spivey, Addie Spivey, although she was usually known as Sweet Peas Spivey. It was recorded in 1937 with only piano and drums…here it gets jazzed up (literally) in the jug band way and, although retaining its sultry tone in Maria’s vocals, it has a bit more lilt and is the bluesiest of all and really rather good and even has a guitar solo(hurrah!)
If you love jazz-jug-blues, you will love this impeccably performed update to a classic sound…if you’re not so keen, it will still provide a smile and a dance whenever a track comes up on shuffle.
Bluesdoodles rating: 3 Doodle Paws – a great listen for an insight into the jug band sound done so well by all involved…in fact, if you love jazz and jug then have an extra Doodle Paw!
1. I Like You Best of All
2. Let’s Get Happy Together
3. Be Your Natural Self
4. Delta Bound
5. Swing You Sinners
6. He Ain’t Got Rhythm
7. Got the South in My Soul
8. I Go for That
9. Patience & Fortitude
10. Some Sweet Day
11. Big City Blues
12. Road of Stone
Maria Muldaur: vocals
Tuba Skinny are:
Shaye Cohn – cornet;
Todd Burdick – tuba;
Barnabus Jones – trombone;
Jason Lawrence – banjo;
Craig Flory – clarinet;
Greg Sherman – guitar;
Max Bien-Kahn – guitar;
Robin Rapuzzi – washboard.
Recorded at Marigny Studios in New Orleans.
(iTunes rather cleverly (and alphabetically) played me another chartreuse as Lady Madelaine by the lovely Marianne Faithful flowed out of the speakers…one of her own compositions that shows a strength and depth often missed if just considering her ‘hits’.)