Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks; Lake of Stew- Sweet as Pie

Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks
Tradition & Moderne

Sweet as Pie
Woodhog Recording Company

Are we in the midst of a new jug band revival? In October, I reviewed a great new jug band album by Maria Muldaur who got her start in the 1960s playing in the Even Dozen Jug Band, and, more famously, in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. Geoff Muldaur, Maria’s ex-husband, and former Kweskin band mate, and Montreal’s own Lake of Stew, have also released great new jug band albums.

Strictly speaking, in the absence of jug players, these are really string band, rather than jug band, albums (although producer Ken Whiteley does play the jug on one track on the Lake of Stew CD). But, they are in the spirit of the original Memphis-area jug bands of the 1930s, and certainly of the 1960s-era revivalists like Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, and later revivalists like John Sebastian’s J-Band (which also included guest appearances by Geoff).

Speaking of Kweskin, he’s a guest-Sheik on Geoff’s album and takes the lead vocal on three tunes, including a remake of “Blues in the Bottle,” a song that was on the first Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band LP I bought back in the ‘60s.

I’ve loved almost everything Geoff Muldaur has recorded over the years – from his band work with Kweskin and Paul Butterfield, to his solo albums and collaborations with Maria and Amos Garrett. Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks stands tall with the best of his work. He’s a particularly fine blues singer and includes Texas Sheik versions of such songs as “Poor Boy, Long Way from Home,” “Right Now Blues” and “Cairo” (I recently heard my friend Andy Cohen, who kind of specializes in playing hard-to-play blues songs, say that “Cairo” is about the hardest song he plays).

As mentioned, Jim Kweskin, who led the leading jug band of the 1960s, steps up to the microphone to take the lead vocals on three songs. Other Sheiks who sing lead include guitarist Johnny Nicholas on three songs, including a fine take on Robert Johnson’s “Travelin’ Riverside Blues”; and bassist Bruce Hughes who offers a raggy version of “Don’t Sell It (Don’t Give It Away).”

Other members of the Texas Sheiks include the late guitarist Stephen Bruton – the album was recorded shortly before he lost his battle with cancer; Dobro player Cyndi Cashdollar; and fiddler Suzy Thompson, who also played on Maria Muldaur’s jug band album.

While Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks interpret a repertoire that dates back to the era of the original blues players and jug bands of the 1920s and ‘30s, Lake of Stew, on their second album, brings a ‘20s and ‘30s aesthetic to 14 contemporary songs written by various members of the six-piece band. Everyone in the band brings at least one song (and lead vocal) to the set list.

In my 2008 Montreal Gazette review of Ain't Tired of Lovin', the first Lake of Stew CD, I said “the lead vocals and irresistible harmonies shift through the band from song to song, and everything is played with an absolutely infectious energy” and that’s still the case on this CD. I love their energy, their harmonies, that all-acoustic instrumental approach and the quirky songs they write.

While the whole album is fun, my favourite tunes on first listen include Dina Cindric’s “Darlin’ Starlin’,” a really pretty love song with the lilt of a timeless Appalachian folksong; “Pretty Sarah,” Richard Rigby’s romp about tagging factory walls and ducking cops; and Julia Narveson’s “Hey Bully,” a musical challenge to some local bully that feels like it could be an old Gus Cannon song. This, BTW, is the track that Ken Whiteley plays jug on.

Along with Dina (accordion, kazoo, banjo, piano, bass, ukulele), Richard (mandolin, kazoo, harmonica, banjo) and Julia (washtub bass, banjo-ukelele, fiddle, bass), Lake of Stew's singer-songwriter-instrumentalists include Daniel McKell (guitar. jaw harp, banjo, kazoo, tenor banjo), Brad Levia (guitar), and Mike Rigby (guitar, mandolin, washboard & brush). A talented lot. Ken Whiteley variously adds washboard, banjo, mandolin and triangle to four of the 14 songs.

Sweet as Pie is less overtly political than Ain’t Tired of Lovin’, their first album, but it’s tighter. That’s mostly because they’ve played a lot over the past couple of years, but also because they’ve pared the size of the band down by a couple of members and recorded under the studio supervision of Ken Whiteley, one of Canada’s finest roots music producers (and musicians).

--Mike Regenstreif

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