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Set Free

By David Greenberger

Geoff Muldaur
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass., March 7

After a 17-year absence from regular recording and performing, Geoff Muldaur has spent the past five years doing both with gusto, verve and consummate style. He first appeared on the scene in the early ’60s as part of the then-burgeoning roots-folk-blues scene, making his mark as a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (he did remark at the start of his show, “Pretty soon all the people that saw the Jug Band will be dead, and then we can move forward”). A pair of justly lauded albums with then-wife Maria Muldaur followed, before he embarked on a solo career over the course of the ’70s.

Last Friday’s show at the Berkshire Museum revealed Muldaur to be at the peak of his ever-expanding and subtly understated powers. Accompanying himself on guitar, he played with the essential foundation of any solo performer. However, his approach to the instrument is tempered by his keen ear as an arranger. Over the decades, he’s worked with bands of various sizes, scoring for horns and whatever was needed to give a particular song its necessary character. Those skills have come to fully inform the structuring of his playing without a band.

Playing two 45-minute sets, Muldaur drew from his two most recent releases and a wide range of songs that reflect his lifetime in music. His introductions mixed a musicologist’s depth with personal anecdotes: smoking pot with Mississippi John Hurt, driving cross-country with Bobby Charles, discovering a 78 by Blind Willie Johnson as a teenager. He also played material by Sleepy John Estes, Henry Thomas and Vera Hall, as well as his own “Got to Find Blind Lemon,” with Part 1 making its appearance in the first set and Part 2 as the encore.

Throughout the night, Muldaur’s voice was a marvel, stepping up into falsetto with the casual ease of turning a page in a book. He could move from a raspy growl to a whisper like flipping a light switch. He was fully in the moment with each song.

It was an emotionally riveting show, not because he was re-creating the works of other eras, but because he’d made these sturdy compositions his own, taking them where he needed them to go. Muldaur is currently in the midst of recording music by Bix Beiderbecke for the Deutsche Gramophone label (a fact that still amazes him), with this short weekend tour being a bit of a breather for him. He explained that the only time he’s truly relaxed is when he’s performing on stage—every logistical detail of the real world disappears, and he is set free by song, one man and a guitar weightlessly filling the room.

 


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