For years, in fact for decades, the famous Muldaur was Maria: She had hits, a pioneering rock-to-jazz crossover move, amazing musical and career durability, even a tremendous recent album of Bob Dylan’s love songs. But, wait — there’s more: her ex-husband Geoff, playing Caffe Lena on Friday, and their daughter Jenni, with a stunning new album.
In the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (1963-70), Geoff might have earned less notice than his sassy, strong-voiced wife, Maria, but so did everybody else in that playful musical antique show. In the summer of 1968, Geoff and Maria played with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band at Saratoga Performing Arts Center; first on the bill with Spanky and Our Gang and the Lovin’ Spoonful.
When the Kweskin band split up, both Geoff and Maria flowed right into Paul Butterfield’s Better Days blues band, but Maria was gone from both that band and from Geoff by the time Better Days played Albany’s Palace Theater in 1972. Her solo career rose like a rocket with “Midnight at the Oasis,” while Geoff made solo albums, good ones, but got somewhat lost in the shadow of his more-famous ex-wife.
By the mid-1980s, both seemed to have peaked and subsided, hit-wise, but while Maria sang jazz and blues, Geoff subsided further. He stopped recording and performing for 11 years. He made music, but behind the scenes, usually on film and television soundtracks. When he released “The Secret Handshake” in 1998, it was like unwrapping a gift forgotten for days under the Christmas tree: He was back, better than ever.
Geoff’s voice is as much a marvel as Maria’s. It always sounds warmly human and authentically bluesy: Richard Thompson has said, “There are only three white blues singers and Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them.” That’s not just because Geoff sings lots of old blues tunes. It’s also because everything he sings, from whatever style or tradition, always feels like the blues; deep and real, and a little spooky even when it’s beautiful. Just as a sound, an instrument, his voice often does impossible things. It glides off the melody like a hang-glider from a cliff, soaring on invisible currents of soulfulness that you can follow in the air and in the music.
Geoff Muldaur sings on Friday at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs). Singer-songwriter Emily Hurd opens, at 8 p.m. A contender in many international songwriting contests, Hurd has released six albums since 2005. “Daytime Fireflies” is her latest. Admission is $18, $16 for Caffe members. Phone 583-0022 or visit www.caffelena.org.
Star in her own right
Geoff and Maria’s daughter Jenni sang on probably the happiest show here all last year: with David Byrne’s band at The Egg on the night after Barack Obama was elected president. She brought a big voice and an eye-grabbing presence to the stage, expanding a supporting role into something musically and charismatically stronger than harmony singers can usually generate.
That’s what she does, as a professional harmony singer. But she re-emerges as an artist in her own right on her tremendous new album “Dearest Darlin’ ” — only her second, following her self-named debut in 1992.
Since 1975, she has sung on albums by both parents, and on recordings and tours with Todd Rundgren, Eric Clapton, Michael McDonald, Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan), Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Marianne Faithful, Romeo Void, David Gahan and others: more than three dozen albums, plus numerous tours. With many of those, except her parents who make music as much from feel as technique, she seems to have functioned as an antidote to the precision and perfectionism of somewhat technocratic artists.
She has plenty of technique, too — but she uses it in wild and edgy fashion that opens the music up, especially on her own new album. By exploring unexpected possibilities within songs, she suggests other ones — exciting your imagination as much as your ears. If Geoff Muldaur’s voice is a vintage Terraplane or Pierce Arrow, Jenni’s voice is a hot-rod.
When she wings it, going all raw and gritty — as in “Just Ain’t Love” — she recalls Etta James and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She swings like her mother in the suave “I’d Rather Live Like a Hermit.” Evoking the bluesy elegance of Bonnie Raitt at her most uptown in “Just Kiss Me Once,” Jenni is full of restrained, teasing, penthouse passion. Raitt is a huge NRBQ fan, so it fits that Jenni sings “Blame it on the World,” co-written by NRBQ’s Joey Spampinato and Johnny Spampinato and one of many gems on the ’Q’s self-named 1999 album.
Jenni Muldaur’s “Dearest Darlin’ ” is a wonderful record — fantastically well sung, expertly and passionately played and with tons of talent aimed at unexpected songs.
For another taste of NRBQ songs, catch Joey and Johnny Spampinato in their new project, naturally called the Spampinato Brothers, on Saturday, May 30, at the Iron Horse (20 Center St., Northampton, Mass.). They’ve brought Aaron Spade and Jay Cournoyer into their new project, recruiting them from a sprawling family of ’Q’-related bands including the Incredible Casuals and the Chandler Travis Philharmonic. Joey writes and sings the most romantic rock songs since the 1950s, and Johnny came in to replace the great Al Anderson as the ’Q’s guitarist, and the band rolled on without missing a beat. Show time is 7 p.m., when SPF-4 opens. Admission is $12.50 in advance and $15 at the door. Phone (413) 584-0610.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.