Maria Muldaur: Yes We Can!

Maria Muldaur’s Yes We Can! will be released on July 22th. Muldaur departs from her signature romantic blues sound for what she calls her first protest album. She covers thirteen peace-centric tunes originally recorded by Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Allen Toussaint, Buddy Miller, Edwin Starr, and even Garth Brooks, and is backed by “The Women’s Voices For Peace Choir” composed of legendary female singers, activists, writers, and other prominent women. Among them are Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Phoebe Snow, Odetta, actress Jane Fonda, Holly Near, Kimberly Bass, Rhonda Benin, Linda Tillery, Keta Bill, Annie Sampson, Jeanie Tracy, Valerie Troutt, Indian holy woman Amma, Maria’s daughter Jenni Muldaur (when is this girl going to record a solo album?), and authors Anne Lamott, Marianne Williamson, and Dr. Jean Shinoda.

Muldaur says regarding her thirty-fifth recording: “What’s been weighing on my heart and mind so heavy it hurts is the sad, deplorable, alarming condition of our Planet today – wars, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, rapid depletion and rape of the Earth’s once bountiful resources, genocide, poverty, starvation…If things in this world continue the war they are, there soon won’t be any people to make romance and babies, and no place to do so either!”

The opening cover of Earl King’s “Make A Better World” is adequate, but the lukewarm melody isn’t the best setting for Muldaur’s rough edged voice. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” is a much better fit, though I do wish there was as much depth to the arrangement as there is in Maria’s vocal. I think I would have enjoyed her soulful renditions of Edwin Starr’s “War” and “Why Can’t We Live Together” much more if I hadn’t heard similar versions on Joan Osborne‘s How Sweet It Is.

The group renderings of Toussaint’s “Yes We Can, Can” and the Buddy Miller/Victoria Williams jug band tune “This Old World” are fine enough and would undoubtedly be impressive in a live performance, but the famous ladies that make up the “Women’s Voices For Peace Choir” are natural leads and thus not the most harmonious background singers. The exceptions are the traditional “Down By The Riverside” and the finale “Everyone In The World”. The former unites these illustrious feminine voices into an anti-war gospel choir and the latter weaves them together into an ethereal, exotic hush.

A surprising favorite is the gospel style cover of Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free”. The majestic presence of Odetta, Joan Baez, and Holly Near with Muldaur transcend the original. It is worth purchasing the album just to hear these four eminent female voices together in one song.

In the end, it’s three Bob Dylan anti-war songs that prove to be the stand out tracks on Yes We Can and possibly the most powerful performances of Muldaur’s career. The album finally comes alive with the riveting “John Brown”, as the bluesy song gives Muldaur the proper outlet for her rich voice. “License To Kill” and especially the spine-tingling reworking of “Masters Of War” are also truly stunning.

The bottom line is that Muldaur has a substantial voice, these are significant folk songs, and there are some truly breathtaking moments on the disc. But objectively, her vocals don’t mesh nearly as well as with most of these tunes as they did on last year’s marvelously sultry blues collection Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (#8 on my Top Albums of 2007). This won’t matter to people who are more concerned with the lyrical message of peace, but I feel that the vocal performance and musical arrangements are more important when a singer chooses to cover the songs of others rather than write something original.

Maria Muldaur – Masters Of War (mp3 expired)

Maria Muldaur Official Site

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Maria Muldaur: Naughty, Bawdy & Blue

Maria Muldaur’s magnificent Naughty, Bawdy & Blue was the final installment in her trilogy of tributes to the legendary female blues singers of the 1920s-40s era. Backed by James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band, Muldaur delivers a brassed out mix of gritty blues and sultry insinuations. Her incomparable voice has only gotten better with age and this album is one hell of a good time.

Swaggering covers of Mamie Smith’s “Down Home Blues” and Sippie Wallace’s “Up The Country Blues” split the album wide open with a big, brassy, Vaudeville meets New Orleans jazz fest. And “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” shakes, sways, glides and slides NOLA style.

“Handy Man” and “One Hour Mama” (another Victoria Spivey tune) are the stand out tracks, with Muldaur’s smoldering voice dripping with brazen innuendo that would’ve done Mae West proud.

The second Sippie Wallace cover, “Separation Blues”, is here done as a duet with Bonnie Raitt. Dave Matthews contributes piano to the dejected rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”. The disc also includes another Bessie Smith cover, and other tunes originally made famous by Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Sara Martin.

Maria’s cover of Victoria Spivey’s “TB Blues” is not quite as powerful as when I heard Odetta sing it at Mountain Stage a few years ago, but it’s still a striking performance. Even more so considering that Spivey was both a fan of and mentor to Maria Muldaur in the early days of her career.

The liner notes Muldaur penned for the album chronicle her musical biography, including her introduction to the blues as well as her experiences with Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and Bonnie Raitt.

I was not granted permission to share a full mp3, but here’s a clip and you can hear more at the purchase link.

Maria Muldaur – Up The Country Blues (mp3 clip)

Maria Muldaur Official Site
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Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Rosetta Tharpe

Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Rosetta Tharpe features Odetta, Joan Osborne, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Michelle Shocked, Phoebe Snow, Janis Iain, Marcia Ball, Victoria Williams, and more covering the songs of legendary soul and gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was a pioneer of the electric guitar and her songs have previously been recorded by Elvis, Johnny Cash, and many others.

Rosetta Tharpe, also known as Sister Rosetta, was best known for her blues and swing versions of gospel standards recorded with Decca Records in the 1930s and 1940s. She played electric guitar, and performed with greats like Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. She was also a regular performer at the infamous Cotton Club.

The album begins with Joan Osborne’s bluesy, soulful rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. I’ve said before that Joan Osborne is a sadly overlooked and underestimated vocal talent. She proves that once again here. The song also features a lot of handclapping, courtesy of Osborne and each of The Holmes Brothers.

Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt both perform on “My Journey To The Sky”. Raitt plays guitar, while Muldaur’s voice alternates between her usual smokey blues tone and a wailing half-yodel. Muldaur was a key element to the creation of the tribute, gathering together many of the other artists for the project. She had the fortune of seeing Rosetta Tharpe perform live with The Staple Singers in 1962.

Toshi Reagon’s version of “Rock Me” is a funky, swaying rock song that sounds completely modern.

Odetta’s rich voice could make any song sound classy and full of meaning. Here she joins The Holmes Brothers in covering “Two Little Fishes And Five Loaves Of Bread”.

Michelle Shocked does a low key, bluesy, gospel cover of “Strange Things Happen Every Day”, which Tharpe originally recorded in 1944 with The Sammy Price Trio.

Maria Muldaur, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehl, and Tracy Nelson perform a jazzy, big band cover of the title track, “Shout, Sister, Shout!”. It’s the big draw of the album.

Phoebe Snow joins The Holmes Brothers on “Beams Of Heaven”, originally a duet between Sister Rosetta and Marie Knight. “Precious Memories” by Sweet Honey In The Rock has an oldfashioned spiritual sound.

Marcia Ball sings lead on the swinging “I Want A Tall Skinny Papa”, with Tracy Nelson, Maria Muldaur, and Angela Strehl as backing vocals. And it’s nice to hear the raspy vocals of Victoria Williams again on “My Lord And I”, accompanied by The Holmes Brothers.

Rory Block’s voice is deep and soulful on her twangy, blues cover of “Stand By Me”. Maria Muldaur and Tracy Nelson again join forces on “Up Above My Head”. And Joanna Connor’s strong, throaty voice can be heard on “Don’t Take Everybody To Be Your Friend”.

The album is worth purchasing simply for the Maria Muldaur songs, particularly “I Looked Down The Line (And I Wondered). Muldaur is up there with Odetta when it comes to the pure power and richness of her voice.

Marie Knight re-recorded “Didn’t It Rain” for the finale of the tribute. She toured and recorded with Sister Rosetta for over a decade back in the 1940s.

The album also features a fantastic bonus video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe herself performing “Down By The Riverside”. It’s a black and white clip of Rosetta singing the song and playing her electric guitar with a choir.

MC Records

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