NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Geoff Muldaur started performing again with his old jug band colleague Jim Kweskin after a hiatus of some 35 years, he wanted to make sure the music still sounded fresh.
“We didn’t want to sound like geezers just playing the old songs,” Muldaur, 67, told Reuters after a recent gig in New York.
The pair enjoyed several years of popularity in the 1960s as mainstays of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, a Boston-based group that introduced a new generation of folkies to a distinctive Prohibition-era sound that had faded into obscurity.
The original jug bands in the American South, such as Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the Memphis Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers, flourished in the 1920s and featured acoustic instruments anchored by the rhythmic sound made by blowing sharp puffs of air across the mouth of an empty stoneware jug.
Four decades later, The Kweskin band featured the jug playing of Fritz Richmond, considered a virtuoso on both the jug and the washtub bass. A memorial concert after Richmond’s death in 2005 at age 66 inspired Kweskin and Muldaur to resume playing together again.
“Geoff and I started doing a few gigs,” Kweskin said. “I would join him for a few songs, and then he would join me for a few songs.”
At their New York concert, Kweskin and Muldaur traded off on guitar, banjo and vocals. An unadvertised guest accompanied them on harmonica, baritone guitar and six-string banjo — John Sebastian, the founder of the 1960s group the Lovin’ Spoonful.
In a little over an hour, the trio ran through more than a dozen songs derived from the repertoires of blues legends Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis and Henry Thomas, as well as Western Swing pioneer Milton Brown and a roots musician named Vera Ward Hall, known as “Alabama’s singing washerwoman.”
Many members of the New York audience, from the looks of them, could have been fans of the group in the 1960s. But Kweskin, 70, said the age breakdown of the audience depends on where they play. “In the States, 80 percent of the people are in their 50s or older,” he said. “In Japan about 70 percent of the audience is younger. In Europe it’s about 50-50.”
Todd Kwait, a Cleveland lawyer and filmmaker, chronicled the history of jug band music in a documentary released this year titled “Chasing Gus’ Ghost” — Gus being Gus Cannon of the 1920s group Cannon’s Jug Stompers.
As he pursued the project, Kwait said, he learned just how influential the Jim Kweskin Jug Band had been. “They were trendsetters, musicians’ musicians,” he said.
Kwait said he had come across 1960s-era psychedelic posters advertising Kweskin concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco that listed the band as headliners, topping the bill over opening acts such as the Doors or Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin.
Aficionados say a jug band revival of sorts is going on beneath the pop music radar.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of jug bands in this country, and more in Japan,” Kweskin said. There’s an annual National Jug Band Jubilee in Louisville, Kentucky, and another festival in San Francisco, plus one in Yokohama, Japan, where Kweskin said 30 to 40 Japanese bands perform each year.
Still, no players of any age or talent level are getting rich on jug band music. Kweskin has a day job with a construction company run by his extended communal family in the Los Angeles area. Muldaur spent more than 15 years in Detroit building software for the steel-processing industry.
Neither of them is ready to rest on his musical laurels. They performed on an album of country blues released last year called “Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks,” and Muldaur spends time in Amsterdam working with a chamber music ensemble.
“One of the great pleasures when you play in your 60s is when someone says you sound better than ever,” Muldaur said. “If you had a hit record, you get to be a geezer and people don’t care what you sound like — you’re already part of their life. Well, we didn’t have a hit record, so we really work. We have brutal rehearsals. Jug bands to us aren’t a devil-may-care, bang-away-on-anything kind of deal.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte