Jim Kweskin‘s Jug Band sounded like they were as old as the songs they played. But that was the point.
They were hippies reprising the ribald, raucous sounds of folk music that went back as far as a century before them, sometimes to the consternation of the establishment. Over half a century after the peak of his band’s late 60s popularity, Kweskin and his bandmate Geoff Muldaur (father to Clare Muldaur of the brilliant art-rock band Clare & the Reasons) have a new album, Penny’s Farm – streaming at Spotify – and a release show tonight, Oct 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub. Cover is steep, $30, but you could be witness to history. Who ever thought that Kweskin’s Jug Band, or any facsimile thereof, would ever take the stage again, let alone in their old Village stomping ground?
This isn’t the original Kweskin band lineup from all those years ago. Instead, the album features top-tier Americana talent including steel guitarist and dobro sorceress Cindy Cashdollar, blues fiddler Suzy Thompson, and singer Juli Crockett of the Evangenitals. The voices of both Kweskin and Muldaur have weathered over the years, but that’s to be expected, and if anything, enhances the songs’ rustic appeal. The music here has a spare, front-porch feel; in case you were wondering, there is no jug in this band.
Diamond Joe, the album’s opening cut, pairs Thompson’s fiddle with Kweskin’s wry vocal, Cashdollar’s dobro filling in the spaces elegantly. Likewise, the band gives The Boll Weevil a low-key, sly feel, signifying like crazy through this thinly veiled slave lament. And the Celtic-tinged title track, Down on Penny’s Farm resonates just as much as it did a hundred years ago, a grim tale of foreclosure and destitution.
The guitars in the swaying country blues Sweet to Mama are panned left and right to give the song an unexpectedly rich, lush feel, which the band reprises in the balmy 19th century reminiscence My Mary. And the interplay between the bandleaders’ fingerpicking in Fishin’ Blues is just plain gorgeous.
Early zeros New York Americana fans will remember the ballad Louis Collins (also known as Angels Laid Him Away) from the morose Jack Grace version. The band picks up the pace with the swinging ragtime-flavored Just a Little While to Stay Here, which they replicate a little later with the jaunty Downtown Blues, which Thompson caps off with a lusciously shivery solo.
Musically speaking, the album’s high point is The Cuckoo, reinvented as a somber, Richard Thompson-esque dirge awash in tersely purposeful guitar interweave. Kweskin continues to play his cards close to his vest throughout the surreal guitar cascades of the murder ballad 99 Year Blues; then the band waltzes with a vivid weariness through Tennessee Blues. The album winds up with a live take of the murder ballad Frankie, a reminder of how magically the band can recreate this stuff onstage. There’s also a vintage children’s song as well as a bizarre number in fractured Spanglish. Authenticity is a dubious concept these days, but this further cements the whole band’s claim to a vast, centuries-old heritage.