Matt Smith introduced Geoff Muldaur on Saturday night, saying, “He’s been playing here…all the years and hopefully all the years to come.” Muldaur played at Club Passim when it was Club 47, both as a solo blues artist and as a member of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. He said that he had been working as an orderly at Massachusetts General Hospital when Betsy Siggins took a liking to the warble in his voice and started giving him gigs.
Muldaur bookended the night with wonderful interpretations of Tennessee Williams poems that he set to music, the first of which was “Kitchen Door Blues.” From the start, he had us in the palm of his hand. He followed this song with two classic tunes, reworked from his Jug Band days, “My Tears Came Rolling Down” and “Downtown Blues,” which contains the great line: “I got a gal in the country, got two that stays in, two that stays in town. / Got a gal in the country, got two that stays in town. / Well, I treat ‘em so nice, ‘cause one might throw me down.”
Prior to playing his song “Got To Find Blind Lemon, Part I,” he talked a bit about the time he spent in New Orleans in the 1960s, when he and his friends would “get up bright and early at 4:00 pm.” He was sitting with some friends one day and telling them about Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” Muldaur convinced his buddies (“because they were all as blitzed as I was”) to get some brooms and hitchhike from New Orleans to Wortham, Texas where Jefferson is buried to sweep his grave. They didn’t make it: “We went over to the blood bank, cookies and two dollar pay / And headed back to New Orleans. Gotta find Blind Lemon some other day.” Years later, Muldaur made good on the promise, which is captured in “Got To Find Blind Lemon, Part II.”
“Wild Ox Moan” is probably my favorite song to hear Muldaur perform live. For me, it is both Muldaur’s warble and range that get me every time, and this song is the perfect example of both. Vera Hall’s recording for Alan Lomax inspired Muldaur’s version, as he got interested in how she modulated her voice. Despite battling a cold, he sang this song as purely as I’ve ever heard him do it, with every falsetto note carrying and ringing true, leaving many in the crowd shaking their heads in appreciation and amazement.
After a break, he came back for a second set that started with “I Can’t See Your Face” and then a fantastic interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Trouble Soon Be Over.” He mentioned that NASA included Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” in its selection of music to send into space on its Voyager mission, so it says something about Johnson’s place in music history. Continuing with homages to legendary blues players, he played, “Drop Down Mama,” by Sleepy John Estes. Muldaur said he had to do it in his own way, because Tom Rush did a version that just couldn’t be whipped. (Rush was in the audience. I was sitting next to him. I tried to play it cool. Here he is playing an amazing cover of Muldaur’s instrumental, “Mole’s Moan.”)
The concert coincided with an art opening of Eric Von Schmidt’s paintings and ephemera and Muldaur performed a Von Schmidt tune, “Light Rain,” which they arranged together. It’s a really gorgeous blues tune with simple lyrics that linger with you: “Light rain fallin’, light rain fallin’, light rain blowing in the air. / I want you to tell me, tell me, partner, is it blowing in my baby’s hair?” After picking up the banjo to cover another Vera Hall tune, Boll Weevil, he played “Small Town Talk,” written by Bobby Charles–one they did together with Paul Butterfield. He said he once played the Bobby Charles song “Walkin’ To New Orleans,” in New Orleans on A Prairie Home Companion. “There were 2,800 people in the theater,” Muldaur said, “and when we started ‘Walkin’ to New Orleans,’ 2,800 people stood up.” (A recording of that show is here.)
The show wrapped with “Just A Little While To Stay Here,” a brief break, and the encore of Tennessee Williams’ poem, “Heavenly Grass.” And then, of course, a standing ovation. Because that’s what you do when you’ve seen a master.
When you see Muldaur, you feel connected to the larger story of music, because he understands it so well. He knows deeply the interconnected web of musicians and songwriters and twists of fate that created blues and jazz, as well as classical music, and he tells these stories with the enthusiasm of someone who is ready to learn more. He talks to the audience as if we’re all as knowledgeable as he is. We’re not, but we fake it.
“I was talking to Tom [Rush],” he said, “and the way we figure it, there weren’t 100 people in the country playing this kind of music when we started out.”
“Right!” Betsy Siggins said from the front row.
Well, thank god they did. It’s hard to imagine where what we now call Americana music would be today without the incredible surge during the 1960s of not only musical activity but also study of the blues that had been played for generations, which Alan Lomax and others so carefully archived. Muldaur plays with that fine balance of humility, aware of his place in a long line of blues musicians, and confidence that he’s adding something new.
He recently recorded an album with Jim Kweskin that will be out in September and the two are due to be back at Passim in October. You should be there too.