Robert Christgau on a Tribute to Blue Lu Barker (and Blue Lu Herself)
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Maria Muldaur's 'Don't You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker' and Barker's own 'Remastered Collection.'
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City. A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, will be available from Duke University Press in October. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Maria Muldaur: Don't You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker (Last) Now 75, Muldaur became a dynamo in her fifties, an album a year between 1998 and 2011. Always a nuanced singer, she got subtler, sassier, and smarter; her pipes remained supple and the burr in her voice never went to seed. But her best albums were sharpened by a concept, particularly the wide-ranging Memphis Minnie tribute Richland Woman Blues and the mind-blowing Heart of Mine: The Love Songs of Bob Dylan and its climactic "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," which gets busier in that easy chair than was dreamt of in the Byrds' philosophy. This album flips the script by breaking out an obscure songbook rather than reimagining a famous one. Muldaur has been performing Blue Lu and Danny Barker's lubricious title song since it spiced up her solo debut in 1973, and in 2007 she assembled a whole album called Naughty, Bawdy & Blue. Here she lightens her timbre in tribute to her friend Lu on top of a hyperactive New Orleans band, and she's never sounded sexier or more committed. "Georgia Grind" jumps out at "Mama mama look at sis," after which "Loan Me Your Husband" follows hard upon "Leave My Man Alone." But it signifies that naughty and bawdy ain't all. "Now You're Down in the Alley" and "Here's a Little Girl from Jacksonville" could double as 50s dance novelties, "Nix on Those Lush Heads" means what it says, and if "Trombone Man Blues" evokes Dinah Washington at her filthiest, "A Little Bird" ends happily ever after. After all, Blue Lu and Danny were wed for 67 years. A
Blue Lu Barker: Remastered Collection
(J. Joes J. Edizioni Musicali) These 21 calm, playful numbers include only five of the ones Muldaur picked. They average just under three minutes rather than just under four and are slighter in other ways too. Unpretentious but not unsophisticated, Barker's light, unslurred mezzo was admired by none other than fellow non-belter Billie Holiday. Often backed by New York pros more understated than their counterparts back in New Orleans, she's slyer than a first listen suggests—give her some time and her originality will stand there hands on hips until you notice. Unlike Holiday, Barker wrote a lot of her own material, but she also knew when Andy Razaf or Lil Hardin came up with a good one. She's too wise for you to jive, and you're too dumb to realize. She got the jitterbug blues and she's looking for someplace to dip. A MINUS
George Jones & the Jones Boys: Live in Texas 1965 (Ace) Listen to these 26 numbers not for their resonance or intensity, but for how expertly and dispassionately they're picked up, performed, and put back down ("I'm Ragged but I'm Right," "Who Shot Sam," "Intro: Hold It") ***
Duke Robillard and His Dames of Rhythm: Duke Robillard and His Dames of Rhythm (M.C.) Skilled blues-rock guitarist expands into pop-swing-etc. keepers he hands off to women who can sing him under the bandstand—none deeper, natch, than Maria Muldaur ("Was That the Human Thing to Do," "Easy Living") **
Willie Nelson: My Way (Legacy) Casually expert interpretations that say more about Sinatra's ingrained gravitas than Nelson's practiced ease ("A Foggy Day," "Summer Wind") *
Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.