Three jug band legends — John Sebastian, Geoff Muldaur, and Jim Kweskin reunite.
The Jug Band Giants (featuring Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur and John Sebastian). To benefit Historic Newton at Newton North High School on November 18 at 7:30 p.m.
By Glenn Rifkin
Before he founded The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1964 and skyrocketed to stardom, John Sebastian was deeply immersed in jug band music, the raw, unconventional, blues and jazz-based sound that emerged in the urban south at the turn of the 20th century. For a kid growing up in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, jug band was more than unfamiliar, it was simply unknown. Returning home from his summer gig as a camp counselor, the 19-year old Sebastian, still living with his parents, walked into his apartment and his mother handed him the telephone. It was Stefan Grossman, a country blues guitarist and neighborhood friend.
“Stefan said, `Come on in, you’re the harmonica player in our new jug band,’” Sebastian recalled. “I said, `what is jug band?’”
Grossman explained the music’s origins and Sebastian was immediately intrigued. He joined the nascent Even Dozen Jugband, which featured Grossman, Peter Siegel, David Grisman, Steve Katz (who later founded Blood, Sweat and Tears), Maria Muldaur and Joshua Rifkin. Though short-lived, the band infused Sebastian with a love of this eclectic American musical form. He brought vestiges of jug band to his star turn with The Lovin’ Spoonful and the genre has remained an integral part of his musical heritage.
One couldn’t embrace jug band in the 1960s without entering the Cambridge orbit of Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur and Fritz Richmond, the Newton, Mass.-native who became a virtuoso on the jug and washtub bass. Kweskin, a guitarist who adapted the ragtime-blues fingerpicking style of legends like Mississippi John Hurt, founded the iconic Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the early 60s and Muldaur and Richmond were mainstays. Kweskin became a lifelong proponent of the music, which he described in an Artfuse interview as “just old-time blues and jazz played on folk instruments instead of horns.”
“Fritz Richmond was my conduit into the Cambridge jug band world,” Sebastian said. “(The Jim Kweskin Jug Band) was a much better band than we were. They were the big kids. These were guys who had more time on their instruments and were more interested in the specific aspects of jug band music.” Though he sat in now and then, Sebastian was never a member of Kweskin’s band. But he was an ardent admirer.
All of which makes the upcoming appearance of The Jug Band Giants, featuring Sebastian, Kweskin and Muldaur in a benefit concert for Historic Newton at Newton North High School on November 18, a special sort of reunion. In recent years, Kweskin and Muldaur have often appeared together and even recorded Penny’s Farm, a much-lauded duo album in 2016. But the addition of Sebastian for the Newton gig is something special.
For Sebastian, 73, the chance to rejoin these jug band legends was long overdue. In the early 1990s, he had his own jug band, named The J Band, and continued to embrace a jug band experience for the next 15 years. Recently, his agent asked him with whom he would tour if he could choose anyone and he immediately named Kweskin and Muldaur. What made the arrangement more serendipitous was that Muldaur had moved to Kingston, New York, the town bordering Woodstock, where Sebastian has resided for many years (and had a signature moment performing at the iconic 1969 music festival.) The pair began to play together. When the chance emerged to go on stage together, all three signed up immediately.
“This is a starting point,” Sebastian said. He noted that the three have played together once or twice in recent years but it had really been about Kweskin and Muldaur, with Sebastian as an accompanist. “This time, we decided to spread it out a bit,” Sebastian said. For the upcoming show, “you are going to hear the jug band bible,” he proclaimed. The band has learned some of Sebastian’s tunes, including several Lovin’ Spoonful hits, as well as “a lot of the tunes that were super important for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.”
Having experienced the brief allure of superstardom, Sebastian is circumspect over the trajectory of his career. He hasn’t been shy in sharing with his solo audiences tales of “trying to stay alive while I was wildly unpopular five or six times.” He claims to have gained insight by being the son of a musician. His father was a heralded classical chromatic harmonica player and composer who soared to great heights in the New York of the 1940s and 50s only to endure a stark period in which audiences were no longer receptive “to a guy playing a classical harmonica.”
Having seen the ups and down of musical stardom, Sebastian was prepared when his career cooled. “I knew that these moments of success are not a continuum,” he said. “They have a wave effect, the tide comes in and goes out. That’s why it wasn’t a crushing blow.”
As he gears up for the Newton show, Sebastian is thrilled to get back on a stage performing the music he has long embraced. For him, jug band is what he called an odd mix of emotions. “It’s a combination of hilarity, because the lyrics can be very funny. But there’s also a poignant quality,” he said. “You can feel this joyous music was born of pain.”
John sits in with the Austrian duo, 23-year old Mona and Lisa Wagner. He did the video for the song they recorded with his harmonica accompaniment.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.