Maria Muldaur is something of a one-woman musical preservation society. Following a trio of finely focused recordings celebrating early women blues singers, she released an album of old-timey jug band music. All excellent projects that helped to show just how vibrant this music remains in the hands of a committed and engaged performer, they nonetheless must have seemed a bit confining to a woman with the chops and savvy to interpret just about anything and make it her own.
With Steady Love, Muldaur returns to a more all-encompassing sound she calls ‘bluesiana,’ and the results, if considerably more eclectic, are equally stellar. Working in New Orleans with a hand-picked backing band, she explores the tangled web of blues, soul and gospel, in the process showing just how closely related they all are.
It’s a decidedly more modern collection as well, with only one song falling into ‘traditional’ territory. The catchy but snarling unison guitar intro that kicks off Elvin Bishop’s “Ill Be Glad” serves notice that this is no leisurely stroll down memory lane. Guitarist Shane Theriot’s tone and attack and the crisp production are thoroughly contemporary, and once the band locks into the song’s groove they simply don’t let up. Bobby Charles’ classic “Why Are People Like That” follows, and again the band, anchored by drummer Kenny Blevins and bassist Johnny Allen, absolutely nails it, with Theriot contributing another snarling solo. David Torkanowsky, typically brilliant as both pianist and arranger, serves as musical director for the project, and it shows in the snappy rhythms and deep grooves - this band cooks!
Muldaur’s interpretive skills are as sharp as ever; she can make any song her own, but she’s been around long enough to know what works best for her sultry, earthy delivery. She’s thoroughly convincing on every tune here, whether it’s the swaggering, sexy strut of “Soulful Dress” or the plaintive pleading on Percy Mayfield’s immortal “Please Send Me Someone To Love” (the only tune recorded with a different band). The only emotion Muldaur seems incapable of essaying is vulnerability; she’s too much the survivor, and there always seems to be either a coy playfulness or resilient strength behind every word she sings.
The gospel thread throughout is particularly strong, with a mid-set cluster of three spiritual numbers. There’s the traditional “I Done Made It Up In My Mind,” Stephen Bruton’s “Walk By Faith,” and “As An Eagle Stirreth In Her Nest,” while a little later we get Eric Bibb’s “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down.” None are overtly religious, though – Muldaur’s spiritually isn’t particularly specific, and even if you’re not a believer, you’ll believe Muldaur – and musically, that’s what’s important in the end. Things come to a close with Rick Vito’s “I Am Not Alone, with the composer contributing a guest turn with some spooky slide guitar. Also on hand to help out are guitar legend Cranston Clements, contributing lead on a pair, and Muldaur’s daughter, Jenni, on background vocals.
If there’s an underlying theme to the collection, it’s simply that there is a thread that connects this music. There are echoes here of the way Ray Charles turned gospel into secular gold, and Muldaur shows that spirituality can still rock out –the sacred and the profane aren’t all that far apart, and spirituality can still temper earthly desire without corrupting the former or diluting the latter.
There’s not a single weak outing in Muldaur’s now-extensive discography, but this just might be one of her best. Highly recommended!