Reflections: Maria Muldaur

Jeff Tamarkin on July 24, 2019
Reflections: Maria Muldaur

photos by Bob Minkin

Nearly sixty years into her storied career, the “Midnight at the Oasis” singer turns her attention to honoring an old friend.

During a carer that is nearing the 60-year mark, Maria Muldaur has recorded album-length tributes to Shirley Temple, Peggy Lee and Bob Dylan’s love songs. She’s made children’s albums, put in time with the renowned Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and sung jazz, gospel and the blues—lots and lots of blues. She’s also recorded with Dr. John, scored massive hits and, in the late 2000s, put together a group she called the Women’s Voices for Peace Choir. She’s earned five Grammy nominations to date for her work.

But, today, what Muldaur really wants to talk about is Jerry Garcia. In late 1977, she was invited to join the Jerry Garcia Band for a tenure that lasted through 1978, singing backgrounds with Donna Jean Godchaux and recording a few tracks on Garcia’s classic ‘78 album Cats Under the Stars. It’s a time that Muldaur remembers fondly, so when she was approached last year to work with a group calling itself the Garcia Project, which faithfully recreates Garcia Band setlists much in the way that Dark Star Orchestra does Grateful Dead shows, she was intrigued. Her relationship with the band, led by guitarist Mik Bondy and singer Kat Walkerson, has evolved since then: Muldaur not only appears with the group as a special guest when she can, but she’s also producing their debut album.

“We’re going to record it in June and I’ve already gotten several Garcia alumni to participate,” Muldaur says, not naming names. “They think it’s a great idea. I was a little dubious [about the band] at first, but it turns out that they really manage to conjure up the spirit that Jerry gave forth musically and spiritually when he played. It’s bringing back happy memories.”

Muldaur, who lives in the Bay Area, first met Garcia around 1974, through the band’s bassist, the late John Kahn. She and Garcia hit it off right away. “He was very down to earth, very accessible, very affable, very good natured and very smart,” she says. “And when he played, there were these waves of joy that went out into the audience.”

It’s a sentiment that also rings true for Muldaur’s own music. Born Maria D’Amato in New York City, she first came into the public consciousness in the early ‘60s as a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band, an acoustic music ensemble that also included future stars John Sebastian and David Grisman. Her stint with the Kweskin outfit lasted a few years and resulted in a handful of highly regarded albums and, when that band quit, she made a pair of LPs with her then-husband, fellow Kweskin alumnus Geoff Muldaur. By the early ‘70s, she was ready to go off on her own. Muldaur’s self-titled debut album for Reprise Records, which included “Midnight at the Oasis,” went all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart.

“People ask me if I ever get tired of singing that song and I go, ‘Hell, no!’” she says. “Who knows why people all over the world are so attracted to a goofy little song about a camel. But they are and, to this day, I can still tour based on that, even though I’ve done so much more in my long career. A few years ago, I was asked to headline a jazz festival in Borneo, of all places.”

She’s also continued to make recordings nonstop. Although the major label contract and the chart hits dried up long ago, Muldaur has released some 41 albums to date, averaging nearly one per year. Her most recent, last year’s Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker, brings Muldaur full circle, in a way. The title track is an update of one of the most popular songs from that ‘73 solo debut, a tune that she says is requested at her shows even more than the camel ditty. The entire recent album pays tribute to the early 20th century music of Barker, a New Orleans vocalist/songwriter who became one of Muldaur’s heroines after Dr. John introduced her to Barker’s work. Muldaur also performed the Barker songs in a special set at this spring’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Now 75, Muldaur doesn’t have any intention of slowing down. She’s got a Northeast tour planned with her Red Hot Bluesiana Band and hopes to collaborate with the Garcia Project in the near future. Her first loves remain vintage blues, R&B and what she calls “swamp funk,” which populates the majority of her albums. “I’ve made it a prerequisite that anyone that’s in my band has to be well-schooled and steeped in the New Orleans R&B sound and sensibility,” she says, “but it’s not like I’m a nostalgia act by any means. For some reason, the songs have longevity and—so far so good—I’ve got longevity. I’m still rockin’ as long as I can.”

This article originally appears in the June 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.