Robe of glory

Pub date February 14, 2007
WriterAri Messer
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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"The Jim Kweskin Jug Band was sort of the first group of goofballs who didn’t wear uniforms, who didn’t have set patter. It was the acoustic precursor of the Grateful Dead," Geoff Muldaur says on the phone from Los Angeles. "Bob Weir got our first album and ran over to Jerry and said, ‘We’ve gotta form a jug band. You’ve gotta hear this shit!’ "

Before iTunes and, getting your hands on a new record was sometimes like receiving a password to a part of your spirit you didn’t know existed. Since Muldaur’s early days with Kweskin and blues integrator Paul Butterfield, his vocal chops have become legendary at the very least. "There are only three white blues singers," Richard Thompson once said. "Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them." Muldaur has been an equally powerful force in the interpretation and expansion of the American songbook.

On "Wait ‘Til I Put On My Robe," one of the most moving songs on Muldaur’s 2000 solo album, Password (Hightone), there is an immediate feeling of ascension as Muldaur’s sings, "Going up the river so chilly and cold / Chills the body but not the soul." The stunning arrangement of this traditional gospel tune comes from Clarence Clay and William Scott, two blind African American street musicians recorded in Philadelphia in 1961. It sounds like Muldaur’s back in ’61 joining in on what he describes as the "weird, modal, wonderful, jumping" harmonies.

Although he was an essential part of the exponential surge that happened in the folk and blues scene in the ’60s, Muldaur is still in awe of the musical movement. He assures me that no matter what I’ve heard about those times in Cambridge, Mass.; Woodstock, NY; San Francisco; and beyond, "it’s all true! When I was hanging out with Jim Kweskin, Fritz Richmond, Bill Keith, and Maria [Muldaur, his wife at the time], I just assumed that’s how life was and that we were just sort of good. But the combination of those people was unmatchable. Bill Keith left Bill Monroe to join the jug band. Maria was shocking — she was so good."

With the exceptions of a quickie gig at the Lincoln Center in 2001 and a tribute concert in Japan for Fritz Richmond after the king of the jug and washtub bass died in 2005, Muldaur and Kweskin haven’t had a chance to really sit down and play together for many years. Muldaur is as excited as anybody for their reunion at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse. "Just playing with Kweskin, man — it’s magic," he says. "Look, I go to the gym so I can keep this shit up!"

Playing in Berkeley will be a metaphysical homecoming. Muldaur lived in Mill Valley from 1988 to ’89 and would sneak across the bridge to revisit places where he had jammed in the ’60s. "When [the Jim Kweskin Jug Band] came out to the West Coast at first, to LA, it was like oil and water," Muldaur says. "But when we came to San Francisco and Berkeley, we were right at home because there were already freaks like us. The jug band and the scene in Cambridge was very much like in Berkeley, but Berkeley stayed that way."

Terry Gilliam told Muldaur his crew members used to get on their knees every morning and pray to Muldaur’s version of "Brazil," which gave the 1985 film its name. "It represented this insane, wacky, other place in reality," Muldaur says. With a major jug band documentary and an immense CD set charting Muldaur’s influences in the works, that other place in reality will soon be here to stay. *


With Jim Kweskin

Fri/16, 8 p.m., $19.50

Freight and Salvage Coffee House

1111 Addison, Berk.

(510) 548-1761