By Greg Haymes
The Jim Kweskin Jug Band never had a hit record, but they were among the most influential groups of the ’60s. Not just in folk music circles, either. Without the Jug Band, there might never have been the Lovin’ Spoonful. Or Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks. Or the Grateful Dead, who began their musical career as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.
With a variety of bandmembers, the Jug Band only had a short run, forming a half century ago and playing their final gig together just five years later. They left behind four albums filled with fun, clever arrangements and a surprising high degree of musicianship, especially considering that their instrumentation often included a washtub bass, kazoos, a washboard and, yes, a jug.
On Tuesday afternoon, Jim Kweskin, Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur and Bill Keith – the four surviving members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band – were sitting in a circle onstage at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, along with along with the five members of the Barbecue Orchestra, who will be augmenting the band in concert. They were rehearsing for tonight’s (Wednesday, August 28) concert at The Egg, the first of their short, four-night east coast reunion tour.
They were surrounded by an assortment of instrument cases, and the band features guitars, banjos, mandolins, a stand-up bass, dobro, fiddle, washboard and kazoos. But there was nary a jug to be found anywhere.
“Yes, we’re jugless,” explained Maria. The band’s master jug player (and the heartbeat of the band) Fritz Richmond died in 2005, but he’ll be there tonight in spirit, represented by the Barbecue Orchestra, who used to serve as his band. Geoff will also be playing one of Richmond’s washboards during the show.
Jug or no jug, the music created by the Jug Band remains as joyous as ever, a dizzying, but seamless amalgam of blues, old-time jazz, folk, country and vintage Tin Pan Alley pop, all spiked with a free-spirited sense of humor.
While tonight’s reunion performance marks the band’s Capital Region debut, the individual members of the Jug Band are no strangers to Nippertown music fans:
Banjo player extraordinaire Bill Keith has been a regular at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival for years, and he’s also a key member of the NY Banjo Summit, the 11-banjo ensemble that made its debut at The Egg a decade ago, featuring the likes of Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka and other Empire State banjo players. (The band is scheduled for another concert at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington on Sunday, October 6).
Geoff Muldaur – who’s playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, washboard and kazoo – has made semi-regular appearances around town, playing solo shows at Caffe Lena and the Van Dyck in recent years.
Singer Maria Muldaur – who also adds tambourine and kazoo – was in town just a month ago, playing with sacred steel group the Campbell Brothers at the Music Haven in Schenectady. Her other recent shows around town include the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (with Marcia Ball and Bettye LaVette as the Sisters in Soul) and at the Van Dyck (with her own Garden of Joy Jug Band).
And guitarist-bandleader Jim Kweskin has performed as a duo with Geoff Muldaur at Caffe Lena and trio with Geoff Muldaur and John Sebastian at The Egg, both in 2010.
The beauty of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band is that the whole is greater that the sum of its parts. And while it all looks so effortlessly free-form onstage, their four-and-a-half-hour Tuesday afternoon rehearsal revealed the precision and complexity of their music, as they painstakingly refined ensemble parts on some songs and shook up others with major arrangement overhauls. They sound loose, but they’re tight.
“Hey, do I get a kazoo solo on this one?,” Maria asked as they ran through “Rag Mama.”
“Yeah, sure, if you want one,” Kweskin replied.
And, really, who doesn’t want to hear a kazoo solo?
The Egg in Albany welcomes the Jim Kweskin Jug Band’s 50th Anniversary Reunion at 7:30pm tonight (Wednesday, August 28). Tickets are $34.50. And worth every penny…
Jim Kweskin, What Was the First Album You Ever Bought?
Geoff Muldaur, What Was the First Album You Ever Bought?
Maria Muldaur, What Was the First Album You Ever Bought?
LIVE: Maria Muldaur & the Campbell Brothers @ the Music Haven, 7/28/13
LIVE: Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur & John Sebastian @ The Egg, 11/11/10
LIVE: Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur @ Caffe Lena, 5/21/10
LIVE: Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy Jug Band @ the Van Dyck, 11/6/09
LIVE: Geoff Muldaur @ Caffe Lena, 5/22/09