Further on down the road
American blues treasure Taj Mahal performs solo at the Senator
Taj Mahal is one of contemporary music’s most enduring figures, and his quest to explore new musical frontiers is perpetual.
Never becoming stagnant, he continues to evolve musically—a new riff here, a different approach there, as his snowballing repertoire continues to grow. And though he won’t bring his Phantom Blues Band to Chico’s Senator Theater next Sunday, Mahal’s solo acoustic performance will rely on his 40-year résumé of blues, folk, reggae, zydeco, West African and Hawaiian music and more. Prepare to be entertained.
Mahal packs in a lot of fun wherever he performs. Songs such as “Big-Legged Mamas Are Back In Style” and “Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man” can break the ice for even the most reserved audience member. Mahal can sing about fried catfish one minute and move on to cosmic philosophical thought the next. He’ll sing the blues, from Chicago to the Delta in roots fashion, with his soothing but slightly raspy voice exuding a street-smart wisdom. He’ll switch from working behind his keyboards to finger picking his guitar and possibly spend some time on the harmonica. It is said that Mahal is master of 20 instruments, all self-taught.
He’ll also undoubtedly draw from material garnered from collaborations over the years with folks you may have heard of: people like Bonnie Raitt, B. B. King, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Sheryl Crow. His own name pops up plenty if you scour any of the famed psychedelic rock poster archives of the ‘60s and ‘70s—like the time he shared a four-night bill in 1970 with the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West in San Francisco.
As a living performing musical archivist, Mahal’s repertoire includes cover songs from such essential American music icons as Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams and Mississippi John Hurt. He offers veteran interpretations of American classics like “Stagger Lee,” “Statesboro Blues” and “Six Days on the Road.” And he promises to regale the crowd with his own classics as well, like “Fishin’ Blues,” “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Anymo’),” “Take a Giant Step,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business (But My Own)” and “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes.”
Taj Mahal, born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in Springfield, Mass. (he’ll be 60 in May), has a unique background. The son of a West Indian jazz pianist and Southern gospel singer, he chose music over academics. While studying toward an animal science degree from the University of Massachusetts, which he got in 1963, he was exposed to a diverse mix of music. He flourished in the counterculture folk scene of the day, learning from school chums who brought African music to his ears and neighborhood blues musicians who imitated Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
As he was growing up, his father’s short-wave radio added another perspective, giving Mahal exposure to stations from such diverse places as London, Havana and Rio de Janeiro.
In the mid-'60s, he joined Ry Cooder and others to form the Rising Sons and signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1967. He gained national prominence in the late 1960s with a series of three superb solo albums, culminating in Giant Step, a 1969 double-disk release that featured a number of tunes that remain classics of his repertory.
Three-dozen albums, six Grammy nominations and two Grammy Awards later (he received Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1997 for Señor Blues and in 2001 for Shoutin’ in Key), Mahal continues to discover new regional music styles as he criss-crosses the country playing theaters and festivals. In 1999, he and a group of musicians from Mali (West Africa) recorded a mix of Mande music and American acoustic blues. The album, Kulanjan, was named album of the year by Folk Roots magazine. He also recorded Sacred Island, an album of Hawaiian music.
Over the years, Mahal has also appeared in movies and composed motion picture scores. He was part of a record 28 years in the making, when the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus film project, which featured The Who, Eric Clapton and John Lennon as well as Mahal on “Ain’t That a Lot of Love,” was released in 1998.
If you come to the Senator next Sunday, Taj’ll take care of you. Just sit back and let the music take over.