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December 16, 2007

Jim Kweskin Jug Band - Garden of Joy

I'll forgive you if you've never heard of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Their records are hard to find and their mention in the annals of history is slim. But their influence is huge. The Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Loovin' Spoonful were all HEAVILY influenced by the Kweskin Jug band. A lesser influence can be seen in dozens if not hundreds of other musicians, including Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, who were the unofficial succesors to the Kweskin Band's legacy. Lastly, pretty much anyone calling themselves a Jug Band (or counting washboards, jugs, & kazoos among their instuments) since the '60s has been more or less an imitation of the Kweskin's group. I myself fall into that latter category. I formed a jug band in college (I played the washboard), and while none of our repertoire came from Kweskin's recordings, his inventiveness, energy and eclecticity were beacons to which we aspired.

I grew up with this album. I know every nuance: every vocal swoop and jug glissando, every home-made sound effect, every double-stop on the violin. And let me tell you, every part of this album is perfect. Once you get over the novelty of hearing jugs, washboards, combs, kazoos, banjos, and glockenspiels, you'll realize just how musical the album is. Every song sets its own mood, and stands out from but reinforces every other song. It moves from good-time blues to psychedelic jazz without batting an eye. Whether it's the hipster-jive of "If You're A Viper" or the childish "Circus Song", the experimental "Kaloobafak", or the frenetic "My Old Man," each song is self-contained, succinct, and spot-on. The album flows effortlessly from red-hot dixieland folk-swing ("The Sheik of Araby") through the otherworldly "When I Was a Cowboy (Western Plains)" to a mournfully loping read of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo". And if you think that cheap novelty instruments are just for gimmicks and sound effects, think again; a kazoo has never sounded so full of lament as Maria plays it on "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You"

Jim Kweskin always surrounded himself with musicians who were better than he. In fact, every member of this incarnation of the Jug Band is a virtuoso (with the exception of Kweskin, who is still a fine player), and most are multi-instrumentalists. Geoff Muldaur plays clarinet, washboard, mandolin, guitar, and pretty much anything else that's required, but it's his voice that knocks you out. His voice sounds like Lonnie Johnson or Bukka White, and the full-bodied energy of his delivery is compelling enough to make you forget he's white. Maria D'Amato (soon to become Maria Muldaur) boasts an equally impressive, though very different voice. She caresses every note, sliding from a low moan to a high falsetto and hitting every blue note in between. You'll also hear her on kazoo, 2nd fiddle, and tambourine. Richard Greene, fresh from Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys is an amazing fiddler, whose dazzling runs and heavy double-stops would sound extremely aggressive if not for their sweet tone and subtle timing. There's not a fiddler alive who can play like Richard, and yet he never sounds like he's showing off. Bill Keith (also an ex-Bluegrass Boy) is perhaps the unsung virtuoso of the group; his banjo stays mostly in the background. But when you pay attention, his every frill, roll, and strum is executed with precision, tact, and impeccable timing. He is an unapologetic time-keeper, he is a train. Kweskin is the frontman of the bamd, contributing charisma, finger-picked guitar, and song-selection. But the glue that holds the group together is Fritz Richmond, the world's only virtuoso on the jug and washtub bass. It's not just that he plays clean, pitch-perfect notes (much harder a 2-gallon jug or an unfretted washtub bass than on, say, a guitar); he shoots for notes that few other jug blowers would imagine, hits them dead on, and then slides into others, like a cross between a moaning blues singer and a dancing hippopotamus. You'll also hear him narrating Kaloobafak, the surrealist intermission of the album. Incidentally, it was Richmond, playing with his band The Hoppers, who originally inspired Kweskin to form the Jug Band.

With this album, the Jug Band ceased to be a folk act and became a full-blown jazz band. And like all the original jazz bands, its repertoire consists of every strand of early American popular music, from ragtime to blues to folksongs to tunes penned on tin-pan alley. In fact, only two of these cuts were originally jug band songs (the hard-driving "Minglewood" from Cannon's Jug Stompers and Noah Lewis' Jug Band, and the strutting title track, from the Dixieland Jug Blowers). But like all great bands, they reimagine their material and leave upon it an indelible stylistic stamp; even the traditional jug band numbers are reworked.

It's now 40 years since Garden of Joy was released. Shortly after the band toured in support of the album, Kweskin had a change of heart, broke up the band, and moved into (banjo/harmonica player and ex-jug band member) Mel Lymon's commune/cult. Each of the Jug Band members have gone on to further splendid projects in the music business [some of which will be posted soon]. Garden of Joy went out of print quickly, and remained unavailable in any part (the "Greatest Hits" and "Acoustic Swing and Jug" compilations drew from the band's earlier Vanguard tracks exclusively) for 38 years [with the exception of an expensive Japanese cd version]. Finally, in 2005 it was reissued as a two-fer with Kweskin's post-transformation album America. Until I ordered it, I'd been listening to a cdr of a casette of a reel-to-reel copy of my dad's (now lost) LP. But still, through all its age and fidelity drops, it retained the kindly seed of music, intact and joyous. This album may be 40 years old, but it sounds like it was made tomorrow.


Here it is (.zip file, mp3, 192+vbr, cover included)

and here's a great Kweskin discography