Taj Mahal

TrackAlbum     
Ain’t Gwine To Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')The Real Thing
Ain’'t That A Lot Of LoveThe Natch'’l Blues
BanjomanLargo
Cakewalk Into TownRecycling The Blues
CorrinaRock & Roll Circus
Lovin’' In My Baby'’s EyesPhantom Blues
Queen BeeSeñor Blues
She Caught The KatyBlue Light Boogie
Six Days On The RoadGiant Step
Statesboro BluesTaj Mahal

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Contributor: Peter Viney

Disneyland, Paris. Trudging back to the hotel from an exhausting day in the park, through the Disney Village. Billy Bob’s bar is on the right, and my eyes caught a sign, “Disney Jazz Festival. Taj Mahal. Tonight.” In fact, in less than an hour’s time. And it was free, or the price of a drink, but it was so crowded that I couldn’t get to the bar. It was the era of the Señor Blues album (1997), so he played at least four tracks from it: Señor Blues, Queen Bee, Think and Mr Pitiful and it was the soul band Taj (he also did I Can’t Help Myself) rather than the solo blues Taj or the Blues trio Taj, or the Hawaiian band Taj, or Taj with African musicians. As Kurt Vonnegut says in Slaughterhouse Five, ‘Unexpected travel plans are dancing lessons from God’, and I’ve rarely enjoyed a concert more.

Taj Mahal sounded like a band name when he first appeared with the album Taj Mahal in 1968. That band had Ry Cooder, who had been in Taj’s first band, The Rising Sons, Oklahoman guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, and Sandy Konikoff, who had been briefly part of The Hawks backing Bob Dylan after Levon Helm left the 1965 tour. Taj Mahal included Statesboro Blues which had originally been done by Taj on The Rising Sons album, then in the new version, it appeared on the seminal compilation sampler album The Rock Machine Turns You On. Taj Mahal was a guest on The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus in 1968, another Ry Cooder connection.

The Natch’l Blues added Al Kooper, another Dylan graduate, and included two of his best-known compositions Corrina and Going Up To The Country Paint My Mailbox Blue. The outstanding track was Homer Banks’ Ain’t That A Lot Of Love, which many artists have done, from The Flying Burrito Brothers to the RCO All Stars, and which The Spencer Davis Group transformed into Gimme Some Lovin’, but no one did it as powerfully as Taj.

Giant Step / De Ole Folks At Home were two related albums, one electric, one acoustic, released as a double. Giant Step opens with Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie No More, a certain choice, but at only one minute three seconds, he did it longer and better later. Six Days On The Road sits with Ain’t That A Lot of Love. Dozens of versions exist. Taj does the best one. A sweet Georgia overdrive in the lyric means freewheeling on long downhill stretches to save fuel, which is dangerous … no gears to stop you.

Farther On Down The Road (You Will Accompany Me) and Bacon Fat are two more. Bacon Fat is intriguingly credited to Garth Hudson / Robbie Robertson on LP and CD … Jesse Ed Davis was one of Robbie’s great admirers. It is, though, written by Andre Williams whose original recording hit #9 on the US Billboard R&B chart in 1957. This early era culminates in the live album, The Real Thing in 1971 also known as ‘the tuba album’ and it is one of the great live albums, recorded close to The Band’s Rock Of Ages, and also featuring a Howard Johnson horn section. The nine minute four-tuba take of Ain’t Gwine To Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’) is the best version of the tune, but the band is so tight in the rhythm section and so beautifully wild on the horns that all the tracks are hard to beat elsewhere. Recycling The Blues in 1973 has the tubas again: look for Cakewalk Into Town.

This early period is solid, and of uniformly high quality. The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 collects unreleased tracks from that period, including a complete 1970 Royal Albert Hall Concert.

After that I find Taj’s output confusing: Ooh, So Good ‘n Blues was 1973, then they continue thick and fast: Mo’ Roots, Music Keeps Me Together, Satisfied ‘n Tickled Too, Music Fuh Ya’. There are fifteen Columbia albums, and I haven’t heard every one of them. Everytime I look, there’s another CD I hadn’t heard of on a different label with various bunches of musicians. Taj was 1987 for Gramavision. Shake Sugaree was 1988 with blues songs for kids. He followed Ry Cooder to the Rabbit Ears label, where a composer and actor are put together to tell a classic story, producing Brer Rabbit & Wonderful Tar Baby with Danny Glover narrating.

Like Ry Cooder again, there are significant collaborations, and with some of the same people. He is interested in Caribbean material, reggae, jazz, African music and Hawaiian music. He’s lived in Hawaii since 1981, occasionally working with The Hulas Blues Band. He worked with V.M. Bhatt (as had Ry Cooder) in 1994 for Mumtaz Mahal, a fusion of blues and Indian music, he played with Ali Farka Touré on The Source in 1993, and recorded Kulanjan with Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté in 1999. Standout tracks are the title track and Sahara.

Early 90s albums focus on covers. Dancing The Blues from 1993 has classic soul with covers of Mockingbird, I Can’t Help Myself and Down Home Girl. In the end, no one can equal Inez Foxx, The Four Tops or Alvin Robinson on the originals, but Taj gets extremely close while giving his own distinctive stamp. Strut appeared on this album.

In 1996 and 1997, two particularly powerful more soul-influenced albums in a row were Phantom Blues and Señor Blues. The way Taj dances across the backing in Queen Bee makes it the very first choice in the list above. Queen Bee is a song he’s revisited several times. It had appeared on 1978’s Evolution (The Most Recent) and then again on Kulanjan. I’ll take the Señor Blues version, which is also the most vigorous with a better bass part.

Shoutin’ In Key by Taj Mahal & The Phantom Blues Band presents this period live. Taj Mahal always does a LOT of cover versions, meaning his originals are a low proportion of his recorded output. Phantom Blues has Ooh Poo Pah Doo, Lonely Avenue, What Am I Living For?, Let The Four Winds Blow among others, but only one Taj original: Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes.

Blue Light Boogie (1999) is a compilation of contributions from tribute albums fleshed out with tracks from Like Never Before (1991) and Dancing The Blues (1993). Blue Light Boogie has covers galore plus older compositions revisited: Take A Giant Step and Big Legged Mommas Are Back in Style. Honky Tonk Women is a duo with James Cotton, originally part of Paint It Blue: Songs of The Rolling Stones project for the House of Blues, while Mercedes Benz comes from Songs Deep Down – Songs of Janis Joplin from the same label, and Taj is accompanied by percussion and tuba. He really does like tuba. Feats Don’t Fail Me Now is from Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor – Lowell George Tribute Album. John The Revelator is from the Blues Brothers 2000 album (1997).

Revisiting earlier songs is his habit, and Blue Light Boogie features She Caught The Katy live from a Tibetan Freedom Concert. That’s another Taj repeat cover, but you could choose the version from The Natch’l Blues or the tuba version from The Real Thing.

The Hooters, together with Hall & Oates and Sheryl Crow, had backed Taj on Don’t Call Us from Like Never Before. The Largo concept album, produced by Rick Chertoff and Rob Hyman of The Hooters gave contributions of Freedom Ride and Banjo Man by Taj Mahal. On the Dylan tribute Tangled Up In Blue Taj Mahal contributed It Takes A Lot To Laugh.

The three CD set In Progress and In Motion: 1965-1998 is the best overview of his work.

Maestro in 2008 was a return after five years without new releases, with guest appearances from Toumani Diabaté, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson and Los Lobos.

 

Taj Mahal official website

Taj Mahal biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #76

2 Comments

  1. David Powell
    Sep 25, 2013

    Jesse Ed Davis played briefly in Conway Twitty’s band in the early ’60s. This is where he first crossed paths with Levon & The Hawks while they were playing with Ronnie Hawkins. Several years later when Jesse Ed moved to California, Levon, who had just left the Dylan tour, introduced him to Leon Russell. Sandy Konikoff was also around at the time.

  2. David Lewis
    Mar 14, 2014

    ‘She caught the Katy’ was co-written by Yank Rachell, one of the few black blues mandolin players. There’s an excellent book called ‘Blues Mandolin Man’ plus a documentary, actually about another blues mandolin player which I’ll remember the title of later.

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