Four years ago, a voice eased out of radios across the country with a clear sensuality that thoroughly captivated any listeners minds to mysterious lands, suggesting emotions and letting the imagination fill in the blanks.
The voice belonged to Maria Muldaur, and the song, "Midnight at the Oasis," was the No. 1 record in America in 1974. It seemed a new talent had appeared, one ready to climb alongside Carole King and Joni Mitchell on the top rung of female vocalists in popular music. (July Collins was too sporadic, Carly Simon too reclusive and Linda Ronstadt too inconsistent). Except that Maria Muldaur never quite arrived.
There were records ("Waitress in a Donut Shop," Reprise MS-2194 and "Sweet Harmony." Reprise MS-2235) and concert appearances, most of them with jazz veteran Benny Carter and his band. Many of the shows drew critical acclaim but not enough drew paying customers, and Muldaur went into eclipse.
Now, though, the sun may be breaking through again. Muldaur has a new tour and a new album and things are beginning to look up. The tour reached the Warner Theater last Saturday with a concert headlined by David Bromberg. The album, "Southern Winds," marks a return to the style of "Midnight at the Oasis" as well as an attempt to cover all the musical bases.
Muldaur's appeal lies in her ability to convey a wide range of emotions through a versatile and expressive vocal delivery. On "Southern Winds," Muldaur gets a chance to adapt to all kinds of rhythms and she's usually up to the task.
Leon Russell's "Make Love to the Music" gets the same suggestive warble as "Midnight at the Oasis" but with a bit more funk; another Russell tune, "Joyful Noise," is more funky and less suggestive but shows that Muldaur can still bop.
"Bopping" is actually a more accurate term on this albam than some others because Muldaur's jazz experience gives her extra spaces to explore.
She shines in the bluesy "I Got a Man" and J.J. Cale's Creole based "Cajun Moon" and seems to have taken the best elements of her work in non-jazz modes. The music is more formulated, but it's not particularly predictable.
"Here Is Where Your Love Belongs" is a first-class middle-of-the-road ballad and brings out the best in producer/arranger Chris Bond (Hall and Oates) and a group of supporting musicians and singers that includes Les Dudek, Mike Finnegan, Church Findley, Jim Horn. Wendy Waldman and Amos Garrett. Garrett's guitar work is especially welcome and a bite ironic, since he periodically plays at the Childe Harold with Muldaur's ex-husband, Geoff. Bond's production is slick but tasteful, and the Hall-and-Oates feel permeates most of the uptempo numbers.
Muldaur runs into trouble in some of those because she is not much of a belter.
The result is some game trying that transplates into overextended stridency. She does do a mean gospel ("My Sisters and Brothers"), but she's not really in her own territory. Last Saturday, in the Warner concert with Bromber, she exhibited some of the same difficulties, seeming to find him and his band a tough act to follow. She was second-billed, which is commercially significant, but he has a large area following and probably seemed the safer draw.
On balance, "Southern Winds" could be the beginning of regained recognition for Muldaur's talents. The fact that Bromberg's music has taken on a decidedly jazzier flavor of late made the pairing even more interesting. Muldaur has a lot of jazz in her background, too, but "Southern Winds" shows a shift back ot her pop success. Bromberg has always been a picker with a seems to be opening up some new directions. The way he turned the audience on Saturday - to the point that Muldaur was at a disadvantage following him - may say more about his being ready to take off than about any problems Muldaur may have in regainning altitude.
With all that going on, the concer was a much better deal than staying home and watching "Love Boat."