Wednesday , April 24 2024
Revisiting a sixties folk/blues classic. . .

Geoff & Maria Muldaur, Pottery Pie

I have to do this every once in a while: I’d been playing so many new discs lately, listening to so many variations on current pop formula, that I was driven back into the musical archives. To heck with discs everybody else’ll be reviewing – let’s go back and revisit some long-unplayed faves! (Besides, I have nothing profound to say about Radiohead.) So I rolled my desk chair over to the CD shelves, scanned ’em and grabbed a selection I’ve unreasonably loved since I first bought it as a Reprise long-player back in 1968: Geoff and Maria Muldaur’s Pottery Pie (Hannibal).
I came to this couple via the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, one of the few folk groups I would even deign to listen to in the late sixties. Both Geoff and Maria were vocalists for the Boston-based band, which took from the rollicking Memphis blues sound of such groups as the Memphis Shieks and tossed a love of corny Tin Pan Alley tunery into the brew. The group broke up after several releases for folk label Vanguard and its big-label long-player, Garden of Joy (hey, Rhino Handmade, why isn’t this platter on your reissue list?), and the Muldaurs moved to upstate New York, where all the hip happenin’ musicians were collecting. They recorded two albums before Geoff split the marriage to become a member of Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, and Maria had a short-term hit solo career with Maria Muldaur and “Midnight at the Oasis.”
Pottery Pie was their first solo disc, and it’s a strange and wonderful collection of eclectic hippie folkiness. The cover shows husband and wife lying in bed, Geoff holding what appears to be a self-help book on his lap, Maria reading a copy of Awake with an alarmist headline on its front cover, “Is it later than you think?” (This Apocalyptic question shows up in her version of “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations,” a country gospel number that lyrically riffs on Revelations.) Compared to her full-faced provocative poses on solo albums like Waitress in a Donut Shop, Miz M. seems pretty shy. Her sinuous vocals are anything but retiring, though.
Some folks have never fully cozied up to Maria’s wavery singing, but after years of listening to reed-thin alt types, I personally find it convincing: plaintive and playful, not to mention pretty darn sexy. Geoff’s voice sounds like something you’d hear on a forty-five from the thirties. It has elements of Tommy Johnson and other Mississippi moaners, but he can also assay a effective pop croon. Pie alternates vocals between Maria and her bluesy hubby, while Amos Garrett, a marvelously distinctive and underrated guitarman (who also can be heard on many of Geoff and Maria’s individual albums – in a lot of ways his snaky style was perfectly matched to both Muldaurs), provides able support throughout.

The disc opens with Geoff’s studly take on Erich Von Schmidt’s advice-to-the-lovelorn song, “Catch It” (very odd sounding horn break on this track), but it really catches fire with Maria’s come hither country pie remake of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Geoff’s charging version of “New Orleans Hopscop Blues,” a Bessie Smith classic, makes optimal use of his quavery blues voice.
The album takes an odd detour with the next three cuts: from joyful sexy romps to religious prophecy (the aforementioned “Trials” plus Maria’s acappella version of “Guide Me, O Great Jehovah”) along with a child’s western lullaby (“Prairie Lullaby”) by Geoff. But it immediately picks back up with the next track, Maria’s electric blues remake of Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” Whatever was going on in the woman’s head during “Jehovah” totally becomes irrelevant with this cut, especially when she and hubby trade moans and oh, honeys during the song’s extended finish. When Geoff jumps into a goofy remake of Xavier Cugat’s “Brazil” (yes, this version was used in Terry Gilliam’s movie), you’re grateful for the chance to cool down.
The last two cuts take the disc out on a strong note: Maria’s wistful remake of “Georgia on My Mind” anticipates her later duet with Hoagie Carmichael, while Geoff’s brooding version of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” is one of the most affecting vocals this unmatchable white blues singer ever cut – great throbbing guitar work from Garrett, too.
Like I said: a strange disc, that almost flies into some religio-kitsch wonderland in its center (not as strange a place as former band leader Jim Kweskin landed, but that’s another story), then soars into a great blues/pop concoction. Let’s hear it for idiosyncratic musicology!
When I first started thinking of this disc, I did a quick check on Amazon to see if the Hannibal/Rykodisc reissue that I’d bought in the mid-nineties was still available. It’s not, though there’s an import CD around of both Pie and the duo’s follow-up Sweet Potatoes around. Maria is quite active doing solo blues discs these days (her Richland Woman Blues disc is a great rural tribute), while Geoff is reportedly working on a big box tribute to Bix Beiderbecke. His ex-‘s seventies pop albums can be found at bargain prices (have long enjoyed Maria’s version of the Swallows’ “It Ain’t the Meat” on Donut Shop), while Rhino’s reissues of the Better Days’ albums (Better Days and It All Comes Back) are also primo (Muldaur’s take on Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk” is a mini-masterwork of persuasive indignation). The seventies post-breakup material isn’t as quirky as Pie (which some listeners will prefer), but it’s got plenty of diverse charms.
That was fun. Now where’d I shelve that Kweskin Jug Band best-of?

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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