Though not quite the household name she deserves to be, few if anyone can rival Maria Muldaur’s career in music – from her earliest days on the Greenwich Village folk scene with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to a string of albums in the late sixties and early seventies that serve as some of the finest funky, folky, jazzy roots stew albums ever created. First in collaboration with her-then husband Geoff Muldaur, and then several solo albums backed by some of the day’s most talented musicians, her popular success culminated with her self-titled album pictured above led by her sultry ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ which skyrocketed to #6 on the U.S. Billboard chart and was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards.
Reflecting the diverse set of influences and sounds that drive the album, ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ doesn’t sound anything like the rest of the album. Indeed, none of the songs on the album sound particularly similar musically. There’s a serious mix of styles here, with Muldaur’s voice really the sole unifying force tying them together. With breathtaking range and versatility, she sings with an airy twang on country tunes, with a muscular swagger on horn-infused soul and with a sultry, jazzy edge on ballads.
Perhaps the most telling compliment on Muldaur’s vocals is this – on an album featuring appearances from Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner and David Grisman amongst many others, it’s Muldaur’s voice that is the attention-grabbing highlight on every song. Sure, Amos Garrett’s guitar solo on ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ has been widely praised and Ry Cooder, Clarence White and David Grisman deliver some nifty picking throughout, but the band plays with enough restraint and balance to keep the focus on her soaring vocals. Dr. John’s horn arrangements on ‘Don’t You Make Me High (Don’t You Feel My Leg)’, ‘Vaudeville Man’ and the funky ‘Three Dollar Bill’ are particularly effective, with only the string arrangement on ‘Mad Mad Me’ feeling a bit forced.
It does surprise me a bit that Maria Muldaur hasn’t received more attention with the Americana revival of the past ten years. I’ve never heard anyone mention this album, nor do I see it often in record stores. Perhaps the unexpected pop success of ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ distracted from how strong the entire album is. Or maybe it’s still just a bit too eclectic. The transition from ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ into a cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’, complete with stellar bluegrass interplay from White, Grisman and Richard Greene can feel a little jarring. But for me, it’s a brilliant journey through 20th century American music, where everything from her earliest folk influences to Dixieland jazz and even (at that time) contemporary country like Dolly Parton could live side by side.
I’m lucky to have come across a very clean copy of it at a thrift store, and must admit that it’s quickly grown into a favorite. Produced by Joe Boyd of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake fame, the album has a beautiful punch coming through my speakers on vinyl. The horns pop, the guitar fingerpicking sounds live in the room, and Maria’s voice glides beautifully over the top, sounding like it was recorded in a church. One of those albums meant to be listened to on vinyl – go dig it up.