The Boston Herald
Scene section, February 26, 1999
By Daniel Gewertz

Folk; Jim Kweskin and Co. catch the spirit with jug band

Jug band legend Jim Kweskin has a new band, yet he has hired neither a booking agent nor a publicist, and there's no immediate plans to record. Tomorrow's gig at Club Passim will be only one of a handful of dates this year for Jim Kweskin & Samoa with the Swinging Tenants.

"Music is not what I do for a living," said Kweskin this week from his commune home in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury. "I'm in the construction business. I mostly play music just for fun, on nights and weekends."

The new band explores the old-time music for which Kweskin is known: vivid versions of pop, country, blues, swing and jug band songs from the 1920s through the '50s, from Mance Liscomb to Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith to Julie London. The Kweskin Jug Band of the '60s brought Maria Muldaur to prominence. The new band showcases another young female vocalist, Samoa, "an incredible singer," Kweskin said. Samoa has been living at the Fort Hill commune since she was a baby.

The commune was once a public part of Boston life, publishing the city's first "underground" weekly paper, the Avatar, in the late '60s. At the center of the group was the late Mel Lyman, one-time harmonica player with the Kweskin Jug Band.

"We were inaccurately called a cult. The word cult has an extreme connotation, and it has absolutely nothing to do with my life," said Kweskin. "Mel Lyman was an inspirational person who many people loved and gathered around."

Though long out of the public eye, the Fort Hill groupo never disbanded, and now, in fact, exists in several locations: There are outposts in Los Angeles and New York City, and a farm in Kansas. "We're an extended family and the construction business has grown, too," said Kweskin, 58. "We were just voted the No. 1 residential contractor in Southern California."

Kweskin claims the commune has no religious base, and the only connection it has to his music is a group spirit. "For my own personal well-being and happiness, I choose to live in a large group, and my favorite thing in life is to gather a large group of good musicians around me."

The Swinging Tenants are mandolinist Bruce Millard, pianist Leo Blanco, bassist Matt Berlin, guitarist Titus Vollmer, drummer Paloma Ohm and harmonica player Geordie Gude, another child of the Fort Hill family.

The vivacious, soulful music that Kweskin has always played first came into his life 50 years ago.

"My father had an antiques store in Connecticut, and there were old 78s of Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller that I fell in love with at a very early age," he said. "It was only in the '60s that I found out all those songs could be played by a jug band."

After dropping out of Boston University, Kweskin traveled the country, hooking up with other young unknowns such as Paul Butterfield in Chicago and Spider John Koerner in Minnesota.

"In 1963, I was back in Cambridge, jamming with lots of folks at the Club 47," said Kweskin. "Maynard Soloman of Vanguard wanted to make a record with the "band" he heard one night, and I told him: 'That's not a band. But if you give me three months, I'll get one.'" The Kweskin Jug Band, with Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Richard Greene, Fritz Richmond and Bill Keith, became perhaps the most influential folk band of the 1960s.

Mel Lyman