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Bix Deluxe: Geoff Muldaur brings back famed Jazz Age pioneer Bix Beiderbecke from the dead.

Bix Lives

New Geoff Muldaur CD fetes a Jazz Age titan

By Greg Cahill

"There are only three white blues singers," Celtic folk-rocker Richard Thompson once said. "Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them."

A former North Bay resident (his daughter, singer Jenny Muldaur, is a fixture on the local scene) known for his precise fingerstyle picking, Geoff Muldaur is indeed working in tandem these days, channeling the late Jazz Age composer and cornet player Bix Beiderbecke. Muldaur's newest album, Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke, brings together a vibrant mix of big names and top session players under the moniker of the Futuristic Ensemble. This remarkable CD features new chamber orchestrations for Beiderbecke's little-known piano compositions with vocals by Muldaur, and a cast of friends that includes Loudon Wainwright III, Martha Wainwright, and the Harmony Boys.

"This album really has taken over my life for a while," Muldaur notes. "Twenty years in the making and here it is. Rather hard to believe."

Beiderbecke's music has proved a passion for a lot of hot-jazz fans, as evidenced by all those "Bix Lives" bumper stickers. Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke was born into a middle-class, German-immigrant merchant family in the river town of Davenport, Iowa. A prodigious musical talent, he forsook the formalities of classical studies for the Chicago jazz scene, and embarked on a journey that would take him to stardom in New York.

During his short life, Beiderbecke collaborated with Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Paul Whiteman, and many other greats of the Roaring Twenties. He and his colleagues embraced a new modernism in which the adventurous compositions of Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky played as large a part in their approach as jazz or blues.

The Prohibition era was not, however, a time of moderation. Beiderbecke's sensitive soul found solace in bootleg booze. He died in New York in 1931, just 28 years old.

Now Muldaur and the Futuristic Ensemble have introduced Beiderbecke to a new generation. The cost of touring with the whole band has proved prohibitive (Muldaur did assemble an 18-member chamber orchestra for a special show on Oct. 21 at Joe's Pub in New York), but you'll have the chance to hear them in action on Dec. 6, when NPR Radio's popular show A Prairie Home Companion hosts this unique group.

Meanwhile, Muldaur performs a night of American roots music on Saturday, Nov. 29, at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House, 1111 Addison St., Berkeley. He will be accompanied by guitarist Tony Marcus of the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and Fritz Richmond on washtub bass and jug. Showtime is 8pm. Admission is $17.50 advance or $18.50 at the door. 510.548.1761.

Adventures in Clubland

If you knew Peter Case as the plucky new wave rocker with the mod-inflected, L.A. power-pop band the Plimsouls, then you're really dating yourself. If you know of Case as a contemporary folkie credited with helping launch the whole unplugged craze, then step to the head of the class. If you don't know Case at all, get with it. His bittersweet, sometimes autobiographical songs describe his battle with the bottle (how else do you explain all those UFO sightings?), his search for spirituality, and his breakup with ex-wife Victoria Williams.

Case also produced one of the best blues tributes ever: his acclaimed 2001 CD Avalon Blues, which feted the late Mississippi John Hurt and brought together Beck, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and Lucinda Williams, among others. The highlight of that star-studded outing was Case's own duet with ex-Blaster Dave Alvin on "Monday Morning Blues." Catch up to Case on Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 9pm at Sweetwater Saloon, 153 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. Admission is $10. 415.388.2820.

The Radiators--whose Colorado-by-way-of-New-Orleans jams have been listed as a major influence by Phish, the Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic, and a host of others--return for a four-night run Thursday, Dec. 4, through Sunday, Dec. 7, at 19 Broadway in Fairfax. Tickets prices and showtimes vary. Call 415.485.0375 for details.

Speaking of 19 Broadway, music legend Dave Mason will perform two nights at the Fairfax nightspot. Mason, a former bandmate of Steve Winwood in Traffic and a member of Fleetwood Mac from 1993 to 1995, has leant his hot licks to some of the biggest albums in rock history. Those sessions include the Rolling Stones' Beggar's Banquet, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (you can hear him on "All Along the Watchtower"). A solid set of credentials. Mason plays Friday, Dec. 12, and Saturday, Dec. 13, at 9:30pm. Tickets are $25 advance, $30 day of the show.

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From the November 27-December 3, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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