May 1999

Geoff Muldaur - The Secret Handshake
HighTone HCD 8097
Released: 1998

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]On his CD The Secret Handshake, Geoff Muldaur sings blues and gospel with a gripping mixture of powerful expression and artful restraint, conveying the songs’ emotions subtly and with variety of nuance and avoiding the pitfall of forcing the emotion by wailing uncontrollably. His self-accompaniment on guitar is straightforward, never over-ambitiously seeking to "prove" himself a blues master yet managing to be heard. He sounds like he’s been doing this a long time -- and he has. Muldaur emerged from the '60's folk scene in Cambridge and Woodstock, and The Secret Handshake is his first collection in 11 years.

The album contains several fine and well-done blues classics, but my favorite is Muldaur’s own "Got To Find Blind Lemon -- Part One": "I got to find Blind Lemon, see that his grave is kept clean." It’s just Muldaur on guitar & vocal and Kester Smith on congas. Original yet bound to blues tradition, it pays loving tribute to the influential bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson. The specificity and clarity of its images and the gentleness of Muldaur’s singing produce a unique pathos. Its pretty melody nicely ornaments the simple chord progression. Muldaur’s "I Believe I’ll Go Back Home," on the traditional prodigal son theme, is also a lovely song.

The closing track, the classic "Just a Little While To Stay Here," an old-time funeral favorite, also features a very simple arrangement -- just Muldaur on guitar and vocal. A much bigger sound, though, comes with "This World Is Not My Home" -- "Oh, Lord, you know, I have no friend but you/If heaven's not my home, Lord, what shall I do?/No one beckons me from heaven's open door/And I can't feel at home in this world anymore": organ, French horn, tenor, alto, and baritone saxophones, backup vocals, electric guitar, bass, drums, and congas. The almost-eight-minute "Chevrolet/Big Alice" medley features most of the same instruments plus penny whistle by Muldaur, mandolin by the renowned David Grisman, and trombone, tuba, cowbell, fiddle, and bassoon, all weaving and tumbling together in a high-spirited hambone rhythm.

Apart from the two songs by Muldaur, Handshake is a tour through Old Bluesland: Vera Hall and Ruby Pickens Tartt’s "The Wild Ox Moan," which opens the album; the traditional "Mistreated Mama," learned from a Dock Boggs recording; "I Can’t See Your Face" by Walter Davis; "Someday Baby" by John Adams Estes; and others. As explained in the interesting liner notes, the writers are mostly long gone. Muldaur does their memories a service by remaining true to the songs’ traditions and yet making them appeal to a turn-of-the-century audience that isn’t altogether nostalgic for the true grit of the blues’ beginnings.

The backup instrumentation on Handshake is lively and serves the songs well. Stephen Bruton does a fine job on guitar on many tracks. Larry Thompson’s drumming is solid; his clacking drum-edge opening on Leadbelly’s "Alberta" is fun to hear. Bill Rich plays strong base throughout, and many skilled musicians join in, giving the ten tracks a wide instrumental range.

The CD is subtitled "American Music: Blues & Gospel." This could appear to be merely a description of the album’s contents, but there may be more to it than that. White men have long been accused of "stealing" music of those genres from those who created it and of garnering much larger paychecks and audiences performing and recording it than their much-less-promoted creators typically have.

This music has influenced (flowed into) American culture so that it is part of America the way sugar is part of apple pie. The music is part of Muldaur and Muldaur part of the music. On Handshake Muldaur demonstrates this, not by "sounding black" or by playing at being cool, but by plainly, confidently, and richly singing in a voice he has nurtured for decades on music he clearly loves and respects and by employing supporting musicians smartly and tastefully. If songs from this album don’t remain in your head for a long time, then the blues just ain’t for you.