She may be best known for her sultry 1970s smash ‘Midnight at the Oasis,’ but Maria Muldaur is a blues woman through and through.
“I first heard Bessie Smith singing ‘Empty Bed Blues’ on a scratchy 78 when I was 17 years old,” Muldaur remembered. “I was arrested in that moment—so blown away by her I stopped dead in my tracks.
“It was an epiphany: ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’”
And that is pretty much what Muldaur became, her ethereal “Oasis”-era voice taking on a soulful, burnished depth over decades of performing bluesy, jazzy, rootsy Americana music. “This is the voice it took me 52 years to earn,” she said proudly. “And I haven’t lost one note of my high register.”
Which is important, because even after 40 albums—and collaborations with an array of artists from Dr. John to Bonnie Raitt to Bill Wyman—fans still clamor for “Midnight at the Oasis.” Muldaur takes it in stride. “Having a pop hit was a happy accident that I’m grateful for every day,” she said. “But ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ was just one stop on my long musical journey.”
The journey began in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village; Muldaur (nee D’Amato) was born there, and she was there when Bob Dylan put the place on the musical map, performing in the Even Dozen Jug Band with John Sebastian and Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band before going solo in 1973. She said she doesn’t like the “folk music” label, preferring to call what she does American roots music, mainly because there’s so much blues in the mix. “It’s bluesy, funky, R&B-y and Louisiana-y,” she explained. “Filled with the syncopated, swampy rhythms of New Orleans.”
Which makes her concert at AMP a perfect fit in Strathmore’s season-long Shades of Blues Festival, an exploration of what many consider America’s original musical art form. Muldaur says her passion for New Orleans-style blues was inspired by another Strathmore favorite, Malcolm John Rebennack—better known as Dr. John.
“Bluesiana is a word I made up almost 20 years ago, as a result of having worked with Dr. John,” Muldaur said. She got to know the New Orleans musician in the ’70s, working on albums for Warner Brothers; in the 1980s, they toured together as a duo. “As a result of that I got addicted to that wonderful funky, swampy, piano-playing style he’s known for.
“He gave me quite an education in New Orleans music,” she added, “and when I came off the road with him, I’d be jonesing for that funky, swampy sound.”
Her solution? Put together a band well-versed in the seminal bayou-baked blues of New Orleans—and create a new word to describe it. “Even though I have 50-odd years of rambling around various American roots music, this is what I’ve settled into,” she said. “My stuff was always ‘rootsy,’ whether it was from the Appalachian or country side or a bluesy side of things.
“Now you’ll hear the inflection of the blues all through the music, and the rhythms of New Orleans inform it, too. That’s what we do.”
What they do, too, is use music to move drive social change. Muldaur has been at it for decades, and she says she’ll never stop. “I was part of the folk movement of the ’60s,” she pointed out. “That was the beginning of music being a vehicle for social change.
“Music reaches people; it cuts through their intellectual barriers and goes right to the heart and soul.”
Especially beautiful R&B music; Muldaur eschews “dreary” protest songs in favor of socially relevant works that are steeped in the blues—like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” or a combo of Bob Dylan’s words sung by a transcendent New Orleans artist.
“I really believe that’s what brought the Berlin Wall down,” she said. “Aaron Neville singing ‘With God on Our Side,’ over and over.”
Just as she herself keeps singing the blues, over and over—the pro-peace songs, the protest songs, the swampy funk and the rootsy rhythms. She’ll sing “Midnight at the Oasis” as well, as long as the world wants her to. Muldaur is a blues woman; she brings the music.
And as she said, “We need more of it right now.”
Maria Muldaur and her Red-Hot Bluesiana Band will rock AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda on Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $40. Doors open 90 minutes before the show. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.ampbystrathmore.com.