A couple of weeks ago I attended my second 50th anniversary concert of the year – a reunion of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, and it was quite a contrast to the big arena Rolling Stones show I heard a couple of months earlier. One obvious difference was the audience, which was - well – mature, in contrast to the Stones crowd, which seemed peopled by twentysomething Facebook and Google employees. Kweskin band guitarist Geoff Muldaur had tongue halfway in cheek when he characterized the Freight audience as “A bunch of old folks and their parents.” Then there was the music – not an electric instrument in sight, and a repertoire that drew heavily on traditional tunes and things learned from the Harry Smith Anthology, which served as the Bible of the folk revival.
Where the Kweskin band held up against the Stones was in chops and energy. Both leader-guitarist Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur sounded fine both instrumentally and vocally. The third original band member, vocalist and sometime kazoo player Maria Muldaur might not have been as lithe as she was in her heyday, but she sounded just great, and traded witty banter with her reunited colleagues. Genius banjo player Bill Keith, who essentially invented the complex melodic form of banjo playing, was an amiable but relatively inconspicuous presence for most of the show, playing the chords and simple runs he played with Kweskin early in his career. A fifth original member, fiddle player Richard Greene, was scheduled to tour, but was sidelined by illness at the last minute, so veteran bay area fiddler Paul Shelasky stepped in, and did a superb job of filling his shoes. The rest of the band for this tour comprised relative youngsters: jug player Meredith Axlerod, bassist Sam Bevan, and the phenomenal steel guitar player Cindy Cashdollar who, along with Shelasky, provided the bulk of the melodic leads during the evening.
One person who was not replaced was original Kweskin washboard and washtub bass player Fritz Richmond, who passed away in 2005. Geoff Muldaur played Richmond’s wildly customized washboard on a few songs and the band shared numerous stories about this colorful and influential musician. In two sets of music the band mostly revisited familiar material from their heyday, and the sold-out crowd ate up chestnuts like “I’m a Woman,” “Richmond Woman Blues,“ “Fishin’ Blues,” and “Minglewood Blues.” Despite the new recruits and the decades long hiatus of the original members sharing a stage, the band was mostly tight and well rehearsed. Both Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur continue to impress with their solo and dual fingerpicking, and Keith work from his sideman role late in the show to show off his dazzling melodic technique on a rousing instrumental version of “Caravan.”
Reunions like this can often be lackluster affairs, motivated by money more than artistic concerns. Although I hope the band members get a decent payday out of this brief tour, it was clear that the original jug band members, and their younger recruits, were genuinely enjoying one another’s company again, and bringing quite a bit of their old magic back in the process.