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April 15, 2006

Blues Vocalist Maria Muldaur Pays Tribute to Memphis Minnie

Written by
cindy mcleod

CD Review / Blues Vocal
Maria Muldaur / Sweet Lovin’ of Soul
Stony Plain Records / 2005

Within one’s lifetime, there will only be only a few rare vocalists who hit the peak of success, remain there for decades, and produce works that last eternally. Maria Muldaur is such an artist. Her work is not only eternal, but so are the classic forms she interprets, from folk to jug band, jazz to blues. Her Sweet Lovin’ of Soul is the second in her series paying tribute to the women songwriters and singers of blues, this one featuring the work of Memphis Minnie.

Muldaur is an artist of epic proportions, her extensive knowledge of the idioms she performs allows her to move effortlessly between genres and create music that reaches excellence at every turn. Sweet Lovin’ of Soul adds another title to her impressive catalogue of recordings, and follows on the heels of the first in her trilogy celebrating the women of blues. The first of the series, Richland Woman Blues garnered an armload of awards nominations, including the prestigious W.C. Handy Award (now the Blues Music Awards), a Grammy Award, and a win for Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year for the Indie Awards. Sweet Lovin’ of Soul follows suit with both Grammy and Blues Award nominations, and will likely fill the artist’s mantle with two more much deserved wins.

Muldaur has a voice that sends chills down the spine, emotional, passionate, sensual, and evocative, she can elicit a response from even the coldest of hearts. Her divine voice just gets better with age, developing a tweedy resonance that burnishes an already golden tone. Perfect pitch, excellent phrasing, and deep interpretive powers have made her one of the finest vocalists of her era.

A collection of mostly acoustic songs produced in a style close to the original art form, Sweet Lovin’ of Soul features an esteemed group of colleagues bringing her vision to life. Surrounded by such luminaries as guitarist Del Ray, who teams with Steve James to recreate the dynamic two guitar sound of Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, veteran bluesman Pinetop Perkins, the inimitable Taj Mahal, pianist Dave Matthews, and a host of others fill out these twelve superb tracks.

Memphis Minnie, Muldaur’s inspiration for the album, was a blues pioneer native to Louisiana who later created a formidable force in Chicago. A guitar player of note, Memphis Minnie also wrote over 200 songs, and was a groundbreaker in the traditional blues idiom. Heavily influencing Muldaur in her youth, Maria pays homage to her heroine decades later with this release, covering four of her predecessor’s songs among the tracks.

The title cut “Sweet Lovin’ of Soul”, takes Muldaur back to her roots. Teamed with fiddler Suzy Thompson, Taj Mahal on banjo and guitar, and the late Fritz Richmond on washtub bass, the song puts the stamp on the jug band sound as only these greats could. Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” was one of the Muldaur’s first and greatest inspirations upon hearing it as a young girl, years later she makes it her own with her soulful, heartbreaking delivery. My personal favourite, Memphis Minnie’s “Tricks Ain’t Walkin'” tells the tale of the great depression, describing the darkness of poverty as even the streetwalkers weren’t able to make a living during those hard times. Pinetop Perkins makes a stunning appearance on “Decent Woman Blues”, sounding as young as his counterparts as he lays down his delightful accompaniment to Muldaur’s rich vocal, belying his 91 years at the time of recording. Of the several vocal duets that appear on the album, “I’m Goin’ Back” features Tracy Nelson recreating the Bessie Smith/Clara Smith original, and Alvin Youngblood Hart lends his voice to “She Put Me Outdoors”, a tune that will put a smile on your face with it’s superb lyric and tongue in cheek delivery.

Sweet Lovin’ Soul is a recording that sees this songstress placing musical diamonds into a rough hewn sound. It ends all too soon, for one is still fully immersed in the imagery she’s created long after the CD stops spinning. Muldaur deserves a truckload of awards for her work, and we all eagerly anticipate the next in her series celebrating the women of the blues.

Cindy McLeod

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