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Muldaur at the Millennium
by Haven James

Event: Geoff Muldaur
Where: Bearsville Theatre (Rt. 212, Bearsville, 679-4406)
When: Saturday, April 24 [1999]

Geoff Muldaur
(photo courtesy of
Hightone Records)
Sometime last fall I was unpacking my records from the boxes they'd been stored in for too many years. Sorting and stacking a selection of serious archival material brought on many treasured reunions, and one in particular with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. I'd recently heard rustlings that former Woodstocker and Kweskinite Geoff Muldaur had resurfaced and was working on his first studio album in 17 years. Quite a trek from the old folkie days, the ten cuts of The Secret Handshake (which carries the sub-heading of "American Music: Blues & Gospel") hit the stands in November to unbridled bi-coastal critical acclaim. The dry old New York Times gave it an all-out rave, while the San Francisco Chronicle clarioned "60s Folk-Blues Hero Asserts Himself." Here at Werewolves central, we'll just say: Wow!

This Saturday night, April 24 [1999], Muldaur will return to old haunts when he plays the Bearsville Theater. If you'd like a refresher in what sleight of hand and quickness of mind can really do, especially when there's a guitar involved in the mix, you'd be well advised to show up.

Some of the best and funniest remarks about the new album came from Muldaur's peers. Said Richard Thompson, "There are only three white blues singers; Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them," and according to Martin Mull, Muldaur's "one of the few white men who should own a guitar. A great crooner ... and cute too." But rather than gild the lily-white-boy-with-the-blues theme, we'll let Geoff comment on that directly, as nearly every commentary we read hurdled the issue one way or another.

"There are quite a few young people, and not so young white people, who have taken on blues as a classical form," says Muldaur. "[They've] all learned all the licks we never could figure out and ... can perform them as the original performers performed them. That to me is a different art, that's re-creation, and they are treating it as a classical form. [Many of them are], I think, fabulous, but it's a different approach." This is not where Geoff Muldaur is at.

Whereas only two of the songs on The Secret Handshake (Hightone Records HCD 8097) are Muldaur originals, the remaining eight are every bit as much Muldaur, though their roots fall into what's generally dubbed the "Trad." column or are penned by such legends as Huddie Ledbetter. These sources are "grist for my mill," Geoff says, noting, "I get hints from everything, man. Blues got to me, but I never ever wanted to, quote, cover a blues piece, and I've never done it where I just covered it. To me a cover is when you do it [the same way] as the original artist." Instead, Muldaur cops totally to being heavily influenced by just about everything from Beethoven to New Orleans brass bands, but how it gets amalgamated and revoiced is not so simple a process. His songs are not your garden variety, sit-down-at-the-kitchen-table-and-scrawl-out-a-tune.

"They come to me, these ideas come to me," he says. "My process is fairly mystical, and I don't think that makes it better or worse. I remember Truman Capote saying he's sort of a nine-to-five creator; I'm just one of those guys that gets messages, mystical things, and they marinate for a while and I hook them up with an idea, and that's what happens with these arrangements."

The recent CD-less years have been anything but idle for Muldaur. While these current tunes have been "marinating," as he likes to say--crediting ex-Woodstocker Howard Johnson (who plays on the new CD) with the term--Geoff has squeezed in occasional gigs between writing music for documentary films, an HBO movie, "horrible jingles, horrible industrial music things," many of which have won him awards, including an Emmy. Touring to promote the new album is Muldaur's first consistent musical outing in years. Fact is, he's been on the road in his car pursuing what's turned into sort of a "spiritual journey," doing solo concerts across the country for the past two months. "Since this album, it's the first really extended period where I've played alone, [even though] everybody assumed I did," he says. "So the record company said, `Great, go out and play, and take your guitar,' and I said, `I've never done this.' `What?' `You know, the Jug Band, Butterfield, me and Amos ....'" But now, he reports, "It's been great and it's been challenging ... I'm learning how to play the guitar."

For these lone outings, he adds, "I have very complex arrangements to play solo and I'm concentrating on it ... The show is a night of solo music, it's very pin-drop, what I do is very intense. When Fritz [Richmond] plays with me, the washtub bass player, he says, `Man, you just can't rest for a fucking minute.' And he's right, it exhausts me, too. Each arrangement, there's no boom-chick-boom-chick, there's always something goin' on, so I'm enjoying it." He's also added a number of songs in process to the line-up, so there'll be some new music, too.

John Herald
Geoff Muldaur is definitely looking forward to his return to Woodstock and the Bearsville Theater performance. The night we spoke he'd just played Passim, formerly Club 47, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another place where he used to live. The house was peopled by faces he'd seen at previous gigs there some 31 years ago, so that was quite a rush. A lot of his old friends are here in town as well, from the Traum family to John Sebastian et al, so it ought to be one of those nights in Bearsville.

Sharing the stage Saturday will be another Woodstock veteran, bluegrass legend John Herald, who'll play a generating set from the annuls of Heraldom. Great to see that John, too, has recently moved back into the limelight, having appeared on the bill with Ricky Skaggs at The Chance not long ago. More on current events with John can be accessed from his web site, which can be linked from Werewolves on the Web at Hudson Valley Music.

The concert is co-sponsored by WKZE radio, and making the trip from the station's home in Sharon, Connecticut, another old friend will be part of the concert. The voice from the golden vault, Randy Milroy, will do the intros and emcee the show. Advance tickets are available at both Rythms and The Golden Notebook in Woodstock and at Abrams Music in uptown Kingston. Call 679-4406 for more info if you need it. Doors at the Bearsville Theater will open at 8 and the show kicks off at 9 p.m. Don't miss this one.

Haven James has been a consistent contributor to the Music & Arts scene around the Hudson Valley and beyond for almost a decade through his column, Werewolves of Woodstock, published weekly in the Woodstock Times

A writer, musician, philanthropist, and Mac addict; he lives reclusively, high atop Overlook Mountain with his son and a menagerie of animals, both wild and domesticated. Though currently unmarried, rumors abound as to his intimate relationships with Madonna, Sandra Bernhardt, and Eli Bach; though he insists these notions to be pure hearsay. His identity has remained a mystery to all but the closest of friends as he often travels in disguise and appears unannounced and undercover at concerts and venues in a dedicated effort to get the real story.

Go to the Werewolves of Woodstock page for more articles by Haven James.
Haven James can be contacted at

Posted on April 22, 1999

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