Just Like Old Times, A Jug Band Stompin'


The New York Times, February 27, 2003

Jim Kweskin is in the construction business. To be more precise, he's a partner in Fort Hill Construction, supervising projects in New York and Boston, where he lives. When he can, Mr. Kweskin likes to get together with friends to play music, often informally but sometimes in front of an audience. Tonight he will be appearing at Makor, a club on the Upper West Side. And he has a new CD out.

None of this would be especially notable, except that, to a lot of people within shouting distance of his age, which is 62, Jim Kweskin qualifies as a household name. In the 1960's, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band loomed very large on the coffee-house circuit that nurtured the likes of Bob Dylan (who in even earlier days played with Mr. Kweskin), Joan Baez and Tom Rush. The rock historian Ed Ward went so far as to place the Kweskin Band alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Byrds as that period's most influential groups. "I'm perfecly serious," he said, in case anyone thought he wasn't.

A guitar and banjo player and singer, Mr. Kweskin was a magnet for other talented musicians who gravitated to the music scene in Cambridge, Mass., among them the the guitarist and singer Geoff Muldaur, the singer Maria D'Amato (who later married Mr. Muldaur), the washtub bass and jug virtuoso Fritz Richmond, and the banjo player Bill Keith.

Mr. Kweskin readily shared the spotlight with any and all of his bandmates, and the music itself was a feel-good blend of blues, jug music, rhythm-and-blues and jazz -- "ragtime stompdown party music," someone described it. Much of the material was unearthed from the old 78's that Mr. Kweskin avidly collected.

The band's credo seemed to be, "Let all those other folkies do the protesting, we'll play the stuff we love." And so they did, for a while anyway, to both popular and critical acclaim.

Their shows at Club 47 in Cambridge and appearances at the Newport Folk Festival were said to be transporting. In concert, Janis Joplin opened for them. "People lined up to see us," Fritz Richmond recalled recently, as if he still couldn't quite believe it. In late 1968, after five years together, the Kweskin Jug Band broke up, as so many bands do, because its leader had other ideas.

In this case, the ideas had more to do with lifestyle than music, and ever since, Mr. Kweskin has played only intermittently. "It's no longer my profession," he said one evening last week, "it hasn't been for a long time. I prefer it that way. Now I play music when I want to, not when I have to."

Mr. Kweskin, tall and still gaunt-thin after all these years, was sitting in a coffee shop on upper Broadway, a few blocks from the Riverside Drive apartment he stays in several nights a week. After a long workday, he was sipping tea and occasionally eying a large apple dumpling he had ordered but not touched.

"I guess you could say that I have occasional surges," he said of the last three decades' worth of musical dalliances. "They usually happen when I'm around people I enjoy playing with."

In the early 70's he made a couple of albums with Mel Lyman, who had once been a member of the Jug Band. In the 80's, he performed sporadically with a pop and folk band called U & I.

Over the last few years he has been playing with a number of younger musicians in Boston who share his warmth for material culled from the great American songbook -- old familiars like "Cry Me a River," and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," plus an occasional plum from the Jug Band days, like "The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me."

The group, officially named the Jim Kweskin Band with Samoa Wilson, is a larger, more standard ensemble than the Jug Band, with piano, drums, standup bass and occasionally alto saxophone providing a sound that can be downright sultry at times. There's a fiddle, mandolin, harmonica and guitars to fill in the roots requirements, and of course, Mr. Kweskin's banjo. But it's the singers -- Mr. Kweskin, Geordie Gude and especially Ms. Wilson -- who provide the essential flavor.

When the group appeared in New York two years ago, Neil Strauss of The New York Times wrote, "One usually musters a sickly smile when hearing of a 60's legend performing with a young, unknown female singer." But Ms, Wilson, he wrote, has "a sweet, effortless, old-timey voice" that was a perfect match for the songs she performed.

Mr. Kweskin has known Ms. Wilson and Mr. Gude, who also plays harmonica, since they were children. "I love the way Samoa sounds," he said, "and I'd like to see everyone in this band get more exposure." With the just-released "Now and Again" (Blix Street Records), they undoubtedly will. It is the first of Mr. Kweskin's albums to come out as a CD.

When a musical icon returns, questions about the past are inevitable. So why did the Jug Band break up? Mr. Kweskin was asked. "The first four years were great," he said. "But the last year was repetitious. I wanted to change directions."

By that time he already had changed directions, becoming part of the Fort Hill community, a group, many of whom were artists, writers and musicians, who moved into the Fort Hill neighborhood of Boston's Roxbury section, renovated a block of Victorian houses they had purchased, and published an underground newspaper called Avatar.

Their patriarch was Mel Lyman, the Jug Band's one-time harmonica and banjo player. The charismatic Lyman believed in astrology and preached the power of a strong work ethic. He also frequently referred to himself as a savior.

There were many accounts of life in the community, some flattering, some not. The 70's brought a torrent of negative attention. First came a scathing series of articles in Rolling Stone that portrayed Lyman as a controlling, Charles Manson-like figure and that brought angry denials from within the community. Several years later, two Fort Hill members were arrested in an attempted bank robbery.

One of them, Mark Frechette, was a young actor who had been plucked from obscurity to star in "Zabriskie Point," a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. Frechette later died in prison, as a result, apparently, of a freak weight-lifting accident.

Mel Lyman died in 1978, but the Fort Hill community -- the word "commune" is disdained -- has endured and prospered. It owns properties in Martha's Vineyard, Kansas and Los Angeles, where Fort Hill Construction, the community's principal source of income, is based.

Mr. Kweskin still lives in Fort Hill, but resists going into detail about it. "There are about 80 to 100 of us, I don't actually know the exact count," he said. "We share a life, we care for one another."

When asked about Mel Lyman, Mr. Kweskin called him "a great man, a great musician, a man loved by many people."

In the decades since the Jug Band, Mr. Kweskin has had only occasional contact with his old mates. "We're still friendly," he said, "but not close anymore."

Mr. Richmond, the Jug Band's bass and jug player, recalled the group's demise with some wistfulness. "We were on the road a lot, and Jim just didn't want to do it anymore. He was part of Fort Hill, and they were turning inward, concentrating on working on their properties."

Mr. Richmond said he was resentful at the time. "To see this thing coming to an end was hard," he said, "because it was a lot of fun. Now, what was I going to do?"

Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles to work as an engineer for Electra Records. The Muldaurs, long since divorced, have pursued solo careers. Geoff Muldaur and Mr. Richmond occasionally perform together.

In hindsight, said Mr. Richmond, who now does administrative work for a Portland law firm, he has no hard feelings. "We had our day," he mused philosophically. Besides, his memories are fond, especially those of Jim Kweskin in the familiar role of catalyst.

Mr. Richmond tells of sitting in Mr. Kweskin's living room more than 40 years ago and listening to the sound of ancient, scratchy 78's that Mr. Kweskin had traveled around the country to tape-record. "It was miscellaneous," he said of the material. "Some of it was junk. But it was a goldmine too -- recordings of jug bands that we marveled at. Jim said, 'We can do this.' And we did, only first I had to learn to play the jug."

A couple of years ago, there was a Kweskin Jug Band reunion of sorts, when Mr. Kweskin, the Muldaurs, Bill Keith and Mr. Richmond attended an event at Club Passim (formerly Club 47) in honor of the blues singer Eric von Schmidt. They weren't scheduled to play, but when they assembled onstage for a photograph the moment was too ripe to pass up, and most of them just happened to have their instruments.

How was it?

"The place went nuts," Mr. Richmond said.

Mel Lyman