October 2011

Maria Muldaur: ‘I came up with a batch of tunes I think were funky and high spirited, good energy and most of all have an uplifting message, which is something I think people are really needing these days.” (Photo: Alan Mercer)

Steady As She Goes

Maria Muldaur goes to New Orleans to cut a new album, and feels the spirit moving as she surveys the sorry state of the world and seeks grace through faith

By David McGee

You don’t have to get far into Maria Muldaur’s steady rollin’ Steady Love album to know she’s right where she belongs. The first song, a cover of Elvin Bishop’s “I’ll Be Glad,” struts out of the gate with a funky, stomping flair instantly identifiable as originating in New Orleans, the Crescent City, where the comely Ms. Muldaur, though New York City (Greenwich Village, in fact) born, has deep roots. Soon enough our Maria enters, testifying in the sultry earth mama voice with which age and experience has blessed her, mounting the pulpit with a gospel chorus behind her, speaking of a world full of hurt and anticipating the glorious day when “I get my groove back again--oh Lord have mercy!” as the band keeps pumping and pushing behind her, making way her for a sizzling Shane Theriot guitar solo as drummer Kenny Blevins and bassist Johnny Allen keep the bottom solid while musical director Dave Torkanowsky embellishes the ambiance with a hallelujah organ straight outta the church.

As Steady Love unfolds, “I’ll Be Glad” turns out to fit neatly into a binding concept. Sister Maria has something to say about the state of the union and the state of our collective souls, and despite some provocative detours--such as her the rockin’ “Soulful Dress,” in which she suggest with undeniable alluring sexiness about how appealing she looks in a certain figure flattering garment; the down-and-out heartbroke blues she and her gal pals bemoan in the grinding “Rain Down Tears”; and the sensuous, horn-infused come-on that is Greg Brown’s “Steady Love”--she focuses her energies on sending a message, but of course in the musical way she’s perfected so you can get down while you’re fulminating over the sad state of affairs she’s describing. Steady Love is a potent, uplifting collection of thick-textured blues, gospel and classic R&B with a Crescent City feel courtesy the stellar New Orleans players Ms. Muldaur has employed effectively in other circumstances, and together they all rise to an exalted plane of feeling, finesse and funkiness.

“You know, this is my 39th album since ‘Midnight At the Oasis’ came out in ’74, so I’ve been very prolific, making about one a year,” she says by way of explaining the Steady Love backstory. “Since the year 2000 I’ve made at least 12 albums--I’m going too fast to stop and count--and four of them were albums that were acoustic blues albums that paid tribute to a lot of the early blues pioneers of legend who so deeply inspired and influenced so many of us. People like Memphis Minnie. To my delight and surprise, three out of the four got Grammy nominations, and on top of that a lot of blues awards nominations, which were wonderful. But my agent recently told me, ‘You travel around the country with your Bluesiana band’--Bluesiana being a word I made up at least a dozen or more years ago to depict the kind of music that I settled into playing, which is a kind of New Orleans-flavored blues and R&B and what I call swamp funk. He said, ‘That’s what you do 90 percent of the time. Why don’t you do an album that reflects what you do live? Let’s not get pigeonholed as someone who’s only doing antique vintage acoustic blues.’ I thought that was a good idea. So I thought I’d go back to my favorite place, where all my favorite music comes from. I’ve recorded in New Orleans several times before, so I decided to go back there, and I called up my favorite players there who have worked with me on many occasions before--David Torkanowsky, Shane Theriot, Johnny Allen, who was the original bass player with the Subdudes, and Kenny Blevins, whose sound I’ve always loved, and I just set about making a record that would be kind of bluesy and funky and R&Bsy and Blueisiana-y.”

Maria Muldaur, with Amos Garrett on guitar, performs Percy Mayfield’s ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ (1995). An updated version of the song is one of the highlights of Steady Love.

Thus chapter one of the backstory. Chapter two is about the song selection. Lots of familiar names--familiar to Muldaur--dot the songwriter lineup, and purposely so.

“I don’t write myself so I’ve made it my business over the years to know exactly who the best American songwriters are, and I go back to them time after time and they never disappoint me,” she says. “So the title song, ‘Steady Love,’ is written by Greg Brown, one of my favorite writers, and there’s another one on there by him, ‘Blues Still Walking.’ And the cut by my old buddy Elvin Bishop, a wonderful bluesman, whom I’ve known him since he was playing guitar with Paul Butterfield in 1965. I fell in love with ‘I’ll Be Glad’ and had to put it on the album. I got a cut from my old buddy Bobby Charles, who brought us such poignant bits as ‘See You Later, Alligator’ and ‘Walkin’ To New Orleans.’ So the collection of songwriters I moved to for inspiration and material once again did not disappoint, and I came up with a batch of tunes I think were funky and high spirited, good energy and most of all have an uplifting message, which is something I think people are really needing these days.”

As per the content of the songs, one detects a couple of trains of thought running through Steady Love: one, the sorry state of the word and the thoughtless way some people behave towards others; and two, grace through faith. The songs seems specifically chosen to send a message, but it turns out Ms. Muldaur only spotted a connecting thread after she had chosen her repertoire for the album.

Chapter three of the backstory: “I had started out to do a straight-ahead, contemporary, hard-rockin’, high energy electric blues album, as per my agent’s instructions, but somehow the Holy Spirit just crept in there and had a message that I guess I was appointed to deliver.”

‘The reward for having lived this long is that I finally have a voice that has more texture in it and is way deeper. Now when I sit in with Mavis Staples, I sing harmonies below her, which I never would have dreamed of.’

To that end, faith becomes one of the animating spirits of Steady Love, overtly in her gritty testifying on the Rev. W.H. Brewster’s timely, topical gospel shuffle “As An Eagle Stirreth In Her Nest,” which is spirit feeling of a magnitude Mavis Staples would envy. She practically dances in the pulpit on the roof-raising “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down,” with a gospel chorus seconding her preacherly importuning about self-respect. More remarkable still is her updated version of one of her concert staples for years, Percy Mayfield’s 1950 R&B chart topper, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Mayfield’s version was a plea for racial tolerance (with racism spoken of as “this damnable sin”) disguised as a broken-hearted melody. Now Ms. Muldaur dispenses with the melancholy mood so artfully crafted by Mayfield’s gifted producer, Maxwell Davis (whom Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller cited as having the greatest influence on their own approach to producing) and adopts instead a gritty, lowdown blues attack underpinned by Torkanowsky’s weeping organ but spiked with contrasting malevolent guitar howls courtesy Theriot, while updating the lyrics to address a multitude of contemporary woes. “I lay awake each and every night wonderin’ how this world got in so much trouble/and the answer…mmmm…you know the answer is always the same/that unless man puts an end to all his greed, hostility and sin”--where “damnable sin” used to be--“all this hate and all this violence is gonna put this world in a flame--what a shame…” She then lets Theriot take over for a startling, anguished guitar solo that twists and sputters and curls around the melody and expresses its own kind of fury to set up Muldaur returning to declaim anew, “I lay awake each and every night, tossin’ and turnin’ and worryin’ about how this old world got in a such a great big old ugly, funky, stinkin’, rotten, disgustin’, revoltin’ old mess o’ trouble…” Clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes, the updated “Please Send Me Someone To Love” is a tour de force as a musical performance and as pamphleteering with a purpose. True that.

Maria Muldaur performs Rick Vito’s ‘I Am Not Alone,’ the album closing track on Steady Love

As powerful as “Please Send Me Someone To Love” is, the album’s high point is, arguably, the hard gospel rendition of Rev. W.H. Brewster’s “As An Eagle Stirreth In Her Nest.” Lyrically the song speaks of rich folk turning their backs on the less fortunate but of God always finding a way to keep His flock on their toes and on their guard, protecting each other from the indignities the well-heeled would visit on them.

The Rev. Brewster, who wrote the first million selling gospel records (Mahalia Jackson’s “Move On Up a Little Higher,” 1948; and the Ward Singers’ “Surely God Is Able,” 1950), and whose Sunday services a young Elvis Presley would attend, preached continuously about a better day coming when all men would walk as brothers. On Steady Love, Ms. Muldaur often echoes the Rev’s sentiments. Moreover, Ms. Muldaur is no stranger to the Rev. Brewster’s song, seeing as how she recorded it on her 1976 album, Sweet Harmony, with a potent but less incendiary attack than she employs here.

Muldaur went back to this song in part because she felt it sounds a warning while also embracing a hopeful outlook; plus,  “I’ve got a lot more funk in my voice now. Here I was born with this light, lilting little voice, the voice we remember from ‘Midnight at the you-know-what.’ But it had always been my secret dream and wish to sound like Bessie Smith and Mavis Staples. The reward for having lived this long is that I finally have a voice that has more texture in it and is way deeper. Now when I sit in with Mavis Staples, I sing harmonies below her, which I never would have dreamed of.”

Which meant she felt she was better positioned to do justice to the Rev. Brewster’s sermonizing. Doing so meant, she admits without hesitation, copping the Staples Singers’ version of the song. “I totally do their version of it. I thought, This talks about how things get shaken up, whether you believe in a God in the sky kind of a guy or the voices of nature and whatever, man just mindlessly goes along and every so often he gets a great big wakeup call: ‘But as an eagle stirreth her nest/so that her young ones will have no rest/God in His own mysterious way/Stirs up his people to watch and pray.’ I thought, this doesn’t have a finality about it; it’s more of a warning.

“These messages just creep in even when it’s not my intention. Considering that I don’t write it means they’re wafting in from that higher place, you know, and so I’m just following orders!”

Maria Muldaur, ‘I Done Made It Up In Mind,’ a traditional gospel number Muldaur arranged and adapted for Steady Love

Indeed. And here’s where we come to chapter four of the backstory. That Steady Love should have so strong a gospel foundation is not merely a fact of Ms. Muldaur’s deep affection for gospel music--which goes back to the beginning of her career in the early ‘60s and has never waned--but to a spiritual awakening of profound personal implications for her. It started in 1979, when her daughter Jenni Muldaur (who sings on Steady Love) was in a near-fatal car accident, and Maria took comfort from Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming “Christian” album. Dylan, a friend from back in the day, counseled her to read the Bible “and it will reveal itself to you.”

She found out he was right, but after a couple of years of “plodding along” through the Word, she discovered a book by Jesuit priest Matthew Fox titled Original Blessing and nothing’s been the same since.

As she explained in a recent interview with the Matador Network: “I call myself a transcendental Christian. By that, I mean I was raised Catholic but then kind of left that all behind and explored every kind of, what I call ‘new age mojo’…you know, Buddhism…not that Buddhism is new age, but, Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Yi Ching, astrology…everything. In the ‘60s it was wide open.

“But then I had a reawakening, a reconnection to the source. It was through the teachings of Jesus, but I’m as far away from being a fundamental Christian as you can possibly be. What I do for my spiritual practices…I swim a mile a day and I’m in there praying and meditating. Well, I don’t meditate, my mind is way too squirrely to meditate, and people say, ‘that’s why you should meditate!’ but, look, if I can just pray and try to get in the presence of divine mind, I’m doing OK.

“My house is full of books, a lot about Jesus and the cosmic Christ, and I read a lot of Matthew Fox. He was a Jesuit priest and scholar who couldn’t have been more immersed in the whole traditional format of Christianity, but he started following the train of thought of the Christian mystics, people like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen. In other words, not just some new age stuff someone made up 20 years ago, this is a whole strain of Christian mystics a lot of whom are known as saints, who have this whole other view.

“There’s a strain of Christian thought that got suppressed by the patriarchal mindset of the church fathers. Instead of being about, ‘we’re such miserable sinners…who don’t even deserve to live, and without Jesus dying on the cross, our angry father God would not forgive any of us.’…you think, who would even want to know a guy like that? let alone worship him.

“That’s just the construct of man’s primitive mind, the idea that you have to appease an all powerful, vengeful God.
So instead of the focus being on original sin he wrote a book called Original Blessing and that’s what originally opened my mind up.

“The original blessing is the blessing of life itself. He uses the writings of these various Christian mystics and people from other spiritual schools as well to put forth the notion that, instead of it being an angry, punishing father God, there’s also a Mother God that gives us life and already forgives and doesn’t require human or animal sacrifice to be appeased.”

“So I’ve been reading this kind of stuff for years. There is going to be an awakening and as horrible as the BP thing was, unfortunately mankind needs huge blows to the head to even begin to wake up.”

A taste of ‘I’ll Be Glad,’ the Elvin Bishop-Bobby Cochran that opens Maria Muldaur’s Steady Love album

Sure sounds like Matthew Fox might have brushed up on his Rev. Brewster while formulating his concept of Original Blessing. But that’s another story. For Maria Muldaur, the next chapter is in a new book--that is to say, her next album--a tribute to Memphis Minnie (with Bonnie Raitt, Ruthie Foster, the late Phoebe Snow, Rory Bloch and Del Rey, among others), already recorded and in the can awaiting its proper moment for release next spring. Then comes a project she divulged in a 2009 interview with this publication, quote:

“Not being a writer, I have written two old-timey instrumentals that other people have actually recorded, and then I’ve written two old-timey songs. One of them is called ‘Old Timey Gal,’ and I want to make an album called Old Timey Gal. It’s not going to be a No Boys Allowed kind of thing but I’m going to use a lot of my women old-timey playing friends—Suzy Thompson, Candy Goldman who’s from the Seattle acoustic music scene who plays the most lovely, lilting, frailing banjo that sounds like a bubbling, babbling brook—and get together with mostly women, but if we need a couple of menfolk in there, that’s okay too. I want to do that album and do some of my old favorites, because that’s another musical love of mine. Since I’ve been revisiting it of late, and the fact that I’ve written four songs in the genre and I’m not even a songwriter, I thought that would be something to be the centerpiece of the album. I’m sure I’m going to make tens of dollars on the writing royalties, but that’s not why I’m doing that.”

She hasn’t written any new songs since our 2009 interview, but cautions, “You never know what might pop into my head. I have so many favorite Appalachian old-timey songs that I’d want to do that--I mean unless they’re really great songs I feel in a way I have a better situation than someone who mostly thinks of themselves as a writer, because I don’t feel like it’s all on me to come up with material for the album.

“Considering that I’m not a songwriter, it’s kind of amazing that I managed to write four old-timey songs. We’ll see what happens.”

Steady as she goes. And move on up a little higher, babe.

Maria Muldaur’s Steady Love is available at www.amazon.com

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Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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