The Jim Kweskin Jug Band celebrates its 50th anniversary
By James Reed
For a group as colorful and influential as it was, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band had a rather dubious start.
Maynard Solomon, cofounder of Vanguard Records, had seen Kweskin perform at Club 47 in Cambridge with a ragtag group of musicians. Afterward Solomon asked Kweskin if he’d like to make a record with that band, to which Kweskin replied, “Well, that’s not a band, but I’d love to make a record.”
That was in 1963, at the height of the folk revival that found its mecca in Harvard Square’s Club 47, now known as Club Passim. Kweskin was one of the scene’s kingpins, helping to making jug band music, a hybrid of old-time jazz, blues, and folk, hip again. He, and later his bandmates, perfectly epitomized the genre’s blend of zany humor and serious musical chops. With their odd array of instruments and free-spirited appearance, they cut a kooky presence before disbanding in 1968.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Kweskin has reunited the Jug Band’s surviving members — which also include Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, and Bill Keith — for a short run of tour dates, including two nights at Club Passim on Aug. 29-30. Perhaps no one is more surprised about the gigs than the man whose band bears his name.
“I was asked to reunite the Jug Band maybe 15 years ago, and I wasn’t into it at all. I don’t know what came over me. . . . I felt like the Jug Band was my past, and I didn’t want to go back to my past,” Kweskin says from his home in Los Angeles. “But then I thought, Fritz [Richmond] is gone, Mel [Lyman] is gone. There’s only a few of us left, and it’s very unlikely we’ll do this again.”
Consulting a timeline he has kept of the band’s performances, Kweskin says the group’s final show was in Bennington, Vt., on May 17, 1968. In February of that same year, they had played their last Boston-area shows at Club 47 with a handful of dates with the Charles River Valley Boys.
Although their run was brief, just five years, Kweskin and gang cast a big shadow over other folk groups that formed around that time, from the Grateful Dead to the Lovin’ Spoonful. Even now, you hear the Jug Band’s legacy alive and well in bands such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops out of North Carolina and Brooklyn’s Spirit Family Reunion.
Newly signed to Vanguard, Kweskin assembled the band quickly, picking the musicians based on what he thought the group needed. Geoff Muldaur was an “outstanding blues singer.” He coaxed Fritz Richmond, who was in California at the time, back to Boston and told him he had to play the washtub bass and learn how to play the jug. Bob Siggins, on loan from the Charles River Valley Boys, was its first banjo player. David Simon rounded out the lineup.
They rehearsed for a few months and released their debut, “Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band,” in 1963. Maria Muldaur, before she hit big with her 1974 single, “Midnight at the Oasis,” and Keith joined a little later. But the lineup was never as curated as it might sound.
“I didn’t have a clue,” Kweskin admits. “It was all guesswork. I was just going on instinct, not knowledge. I lucked out.”
Kweskin, who was already immersed in a broad range of music, particularly old jazz and blues and ragtime, says they rode the coattails of the folk-music revival, but they weren’t interested in straight homage.
“We very specifically and clearly did not want to imitate,” he says. “We were not trying to be historical. We were trying to be hysterical. (Laughs.) There were old-time bands basically doing duplicates of other earlier bands, and that’s not what we wanted to do at all. We wanted to take the songs and take the spirit but create something new.”
Kweskin, for one, was oblivious to the band’s influence back then.
“It never even occurred to me. I was only interested in who was influencing me,” he says, adding that only later did he hear stories about how Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia found the Jug Band’s albums in high school and formed their own jug outfit, which eventually morphed into the Grateful Dead.
Geoff Muldaur says that, in retrospect, he has a clearer understanding of what the band accomplished.
“Because we didn’t continue on and we didn’t go electric and we were more of an influence on later groups than we were well known into the ’70s — because of that, it’s hard to look back and wonder how influential and popular we really were,” he says. “It’s not like we were Elvis Presley or anything, but we got to do almost anything we wanted to do.”
It was Geoff’s idea to bring the group back to Club Passim, where it all began. “The original scene of the crime,” as Maria calls it. The band is so closely associated with the venue that Kweskin even recorded a live album there titled, fittingly, “What Ever Happened to Those Good Old Days at Club 47,” released in 1968.
The band’s personnel was something of a revolving door. Keith was already acclaimed for his work with Bill Monroe when he replaced Mel Lyman as the banjo player. Lyman, who died in 1978 after a considerable amount of infamy related to the commune he founded in Roxbury called the Fort Hill Community, then moved on to playing harmonica in the group.
“Everybody had their own gifts and added so much to the Jug Band sound. All of us, in our way, are good musicians, but put us all together and the sum is better than the parts,” Kweskin says.
The reunion tour arrives on the East Coast after its initial start in Japan earlier this year and then a string of dates in the Bay Area. The passage of time, however, hasn’t changed Kweskin’s relationship to the music. Why would it?
“Jug band music was never a music where the songs had relevance in a political or spiritual way,” says Kweskin, who’s 73. “It was always music where you had a good time. The Jug Band has always been about that — to sound loose but be tight. It was never about saving the world in a political way.”
Maria Muldaur concurs.
“It ain’t just about the nostalgia,” she says of the reunion. “Everybody is sounding real good. In 50 years, everyone has improved musically considerably. It sounds even better to me than it did all those years ago.”
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.