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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Pop Music

Muldaur Explores Way Past 'Midnight'

The Sultry-Voiced Singer, Who Performs Tonight in Dana Point, Continues to Delve Into the Blues

March 30, 2001|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To the casual pop music observer, Maria Muldaur means "Midnight at the Oasis," the singer's sultry, million-selling hit from 1974.

But reaching the pop charts was really a fluke for Muldaur, whose career more closely resembles an odyssey through the rich terrain of American roots music, including jazz, R&B, jug band, gospel, country blues and electric blues.

Still, keeping track of her musical side trips over the years can be quite dizzying.

She has roamed from the Even Dozen and Jim Kweskin jug bands to pop and Christian solo artist to her Dr. John-influenced, self-coined "bluesiana" music. Muldaur's last release, 1999's tribute to the late singer-pianist Charles Brown, titled "Meet Where They Play the Blues" (Telarc), offers a sizzling, soulful collection of jazz and blues songs that stands as one of her finest recordings.

The New York-born, San Francisco-based singer--born Maria d'Amato--continues her artistic ascent with her forthcoming release, the ambitious "Richland Woman Blues." Set for an April 10 release on the Edmonton, Canada-based Stony Plain Records, the album pays homage to some of the seminal blues singers of the 1920s and '30s, among them Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis.

Joined by such notable contemporaries as Bonnie Raitt, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Taj Mahal, Tracy Nelson, Angela Strehli, Amos Garrett, John Sebastian and Roy Rogers, Muldaur maintains the essence of her forebears' style by keeping the arrangements in their original, stripped-down acoustic format. If these new versions sound eerily similar to the old, it's no accident.

"The players that I got to help me instrumentally spent a good amount of time studying these styles, and I felt the way they were originally done was so unique and powerful that it was worth presenting in the same way," said Muldaur, 58, from her home/office in San Francisco. "I think paring things down brings out more of the song's core. Like if Bessie Smith was singing with just piano accompaniment, then we didn't mess with it."

Muldaur, who also produced the album with John Jacob, added: "There are not a lot of extraneous solos or guitar licks or complicated arrangements here. Just the human voice with minimal backing should be enough to stand on its own. Nothing overpowering. . . . That was the main point I was trying to make with my approach."

This labor of love began several years ago when Muldaur visited the grave site of Memphis Minnie in Walls, Miss. One of the most highly regarded artists of her time, singer-guitarist Minnie (born Lizzie Douglas) recorded more than 200 songs for Columbia, Bluebird and other labels. Those early blues pioneers, especially women such as Minnie, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Victoria Spivey, played a key role in shaping Muldaur's future, personally and professionally.

"I first encountered the blues as a teenager, and that raw, soulful voice of Memphis Minnie made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," Muldaur recalled. "These women were early role models for me, as far as how to conduct myself as a female on this planet. What they have to say about male/female relationships, feminine independence and hanging in there to make a living are all incredible lessons about life.

"These songs are spiritual blues, cheatin' blues, financial blues . . . obviously, none of it was calculated to be hits. These singers were expressing basic universal concerns, the various emotions and aspects of their daily lives. With this project, I want to keep this music alive and share with people just how relevant these songs remain today."

Muldaur points to "My Man Blues," her duet with Texas-bred singer Strehli, as a prime example. The soulful ballad tells the story of two women who discover that for quite some time, they have been two-timed. In this song, originally recorded by Bessie Smith and Clara Smith (no relation), the women come to an amicable and reasonable solution.

"What I love about this song is that instead of the typical woe-is-me attitude, the gals feel that because the man in question obviously has enough love to satisfy them both, they decide to be mutually cooperative and just share him. It might seem dreadfully politically incorrect these days, but guess what? People seem to have the need for more than one partner in a lifetime, so get used to it!

"These women had an independence that far preceded all of the women's lib rhetoric that would emerge decades later. There were none of the various support and self-help groups that exist today. The music was a spontaneous expression of the human condition, an empowering force that allowed both the singer and listener to cope with, if not transcend, their personal problems."

Did she ever fear putting too much--or not enough--of herself into the mix?

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