Aesthetically Speaking

Legendary Taj Mahal keeps loyal fans coming back

Never has the term living legend been more apt than when applied to blues genius Taj Mahal. He broke out on the Boston music scene (where he’d earned a degree in, of all things, veterinary science at Amherst University)… Never has the term living legend been more apt than when applied to blues genius Taj Mahal. He broke out on the Boston music scene (where he’d earned a degree in, of all things, veterinary science at Amherst University) some three decades ago and immediately won national acclaim with his self-titled first album on the Columbia label. Critic’s unstinting praise, however, regularly failed to translate into sufficient record sales and, after several excellent releases failed to climb the charts, the record company dropped him. His fans never did, though, and, over the years, he continued putting out recordings for this label and that, delighting ticket-buying crowds to no end, establishing himself as a regular hit at blues festivals all around the country. Some of his career highlights include the Grammy Award winning Senor Blues, the honor being tapped to provide the music for Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes’ "Mulebone" on Broadway and a celebrated association with frequent on-stage collaborator Bonnie Raitt. Raitt, it must be acknowledged, has done a great deal to keep Taj in the public eye, often having him as the opening act on her tours until he became a headliner in his own right. For roughly the past half-dozen summers, he has drawn sold-out crowds to the Minnesota Zoo’s annual concert series, breaking the blues down like nobody’s business. He’ll be there again this year. If you can get to the gig, it’s a guaranteed good time. If you can’t make it, see what you can do about picking up one of his CDs — anybody who can’t afford to buy it, go to your local branch of the library and put it on your card. One way or the other, you owe yourself a great big helping to the sound of this phenomenal singer.

Highly recommended is Shoutin’ In Key on the independent Kan-Du label, recorded live at the Mint in Los Angeles with the Phantom Blues Band as backup. It’s a hard-charged, natural born funfest. Those who prefer his acoustic sets of country blues may not find this to be exactly their cup of tea. They may, in fact, be more comfortable with something like his Columbia release Natch’l Blues. However, if you’re up for listening to him rare back and tear it on down, blowing urban blues like it was about to go out of style, this one is for you.

Most of the cuts are originals, including an electric rendition of the rural-style "Corrina" written with one time sidekick and killer guitarist, the late Jesse Edwin Davis. Among the cover tunes are steamrolling takes ancient juke-joint staples "The Hoochie Coochie Coo" and "Ain’t That A Lot Of Love" and, from that long ago first Taj Mahal album, the Sleepy John Estes classic "Leavin’ Trunk" which still, sounds every bit as good as it did back then Against a churning backdrop of purebred funk, Taj leads off with sweet harp then commences to holler like a field hand on payday. When he shouts, "I ain’t seen no whiskey, these blues done made me sloppy drunk," you’re ready to take his word for it. Building a head of steam from first note to last, Taj and the boys truly do it to you the way it’s supposed to be done. "Mail Box Blues" is proof positive that he can write ‘em as well as anybody. A signifying strut, this number punches tough, putting a swivel in your hip. Jazz-tinged shuffle "Cruisin’," written with Johnny Lee Schell and Tony Braunagel, fairly sparkles. Guitarist Denny Freeman kicks it off with a tasty intro, Larry Fulcher snaking on bass, Braunagel snapping on drums. Taj supplies one of his most melodic vocals to date. The rest of the band (Mick Weaver – keyboards, Joe Sublett – sax and Darrell Leonard – brass) ain’t exactly asleep at the wheel, either.

In all the material here, there is not one loser. It’s easy to see how Taj Mahal maintained despite short-sighted executives at Columbia Records and why, after all this

July 28, 2003
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