LIVE: Feel Good Blues from Taj Mahal 7/20/2019
It’s not his eclecticism which may be unparalleled in blues that defines Taj Mahal for me. And It’s not his acumen on stringed instruments ranging from National steel guitar to banjo to mandolin, but rather it’s his attitude that comes across in his voice and on every instrument he plays.
It’s a positive attitude. A Saturday night fish fry feel. A rent party sense of abandonment. Screw hardscrabble reality. Let’s let our hair down and have a party and make no apologies for it.
In 2019 he may be playing to a 95% white audience, but more than 50 years after I first heard him perform, he still takes me to a place few white people ever go. It’s the same feeling I get when I watch Walt Disney’s 1948 film Song of The South where Uncle Remus takes a young white boy who is ignored by his plantation owning father into the world of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit. It’s the feeling I got when I visited Buddy Guy’s brother’s home in Louisiana where they were cooking pig’s jowls in a steel drum in the driveway in celebration of Buddy’s homecoming.
A lot of blues performed today by African American acts is about angst and the resulting catharsis that music supplies. The music itself becomes a kind of exorcism for the pain that racism, servitude, and the collective memory of slavery conjures. It’s like the artist is saying get down in order to get over being down. Taj Mahal brings on the joy of blues without that baggage.
Born Henry St. Claire Fredericks, he’s a 77-year-old middle class African American brought up in Springfield, Massachusetts and educated at UMass, who jumpstarted his career heading a biracial band featuring an Americna Indian lead guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. He’s rubbed shoulders with the Rolling Stones who love and appreciate where he’s coming from (Check out their recently rereleasedRock and Roll Circus video with Taj, The Stones, and the Who in live performance from 1968.)
The big question was would Taj break pattern for this one concert in his current tour and play mostly songs from his third album, a double called Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home in celebration of its 50th year since release.
And he did it with a band featuring Bobby Ingano on guitar who was more than up to the challenge of matching the talents of the late Jesse Ed Davis. While Jesse’s heritage was American Indian, Ingano is Hawaiian, and he demonstrated his mastery of the lap steel, an instrument that Hawaiians have long played in church as an economic substitute for the organ. Ingano learned lap steel from David “Feet” Rogers of the band Sons of Hawaii who said to him: “When you play music, always have fun and the main thing is, making people happy…period! No worry about competition. It’s not a sport. Just be happy and smile…and never, ever, put yourself above anybody else. ALWAYS play from your heart!”
From those words, one can see why Ingano is so simpatico with Taj Mahal.
Perhaps the most out of context song of the night was a note for note copy of the 1959 Santo and Johnny lap steel hit instrumental “Sleep Walk,” followed by a claw hammy banjo instrumental. Somewhat surprisingly, Taj stuck with the program in a one hour and 33-minute set with no encore that included from the double album “Good Morning Little School Girl,” “Stagger Lee,” “C.C. Rider” and concluding with the title song “Giant Step.”
Taj Mahal was a one of a kind contemporary bluesman in 1969, and he remains an American treasure today who can still get away with performing “C. C. Rider” and “Sleep Walk” in the same set.