By Mike Finkelstein
Legendary blues man Taj Mahal’s performance last week at a UCLA Live concert in Royce Hall drew a large and enthusiastic audience. It was a night in which we saw an integration of musical styles from many different points on the planet, ranging from the Mississippi Delta to Mali. In the capable hands of a winsome character like Taj, the program was hugely entertaining. Though he has recorded material in many styles, using instruments ranging from steel drums to a kora — and everything standard in between – on this night he stuck to stripped down blues arrangements.
With only drums and bass to back him, Taj hit the stage right on time, dressed in white linen slacks and a black sport shirt, spangled with what looked like assorted exotic birds and a wide brimmed white hat. He immediately plugged into one of several acoustic/electric guitars and played “TV Mama” which evoked the old Elmore James riff in “Dust My Broom” and featured a very crisp guitar solo. Though he was not playing slide guitar, he made the riff sound as though he was.
Three songs into the set, it was time to wipe his brow and this seemingly routine motion offered a glimpse into how someone with real presence, like Taj, seems to look all the more memorable in a hat. He held the hat up, looked it over like a trusted pet, and observed in a warm, low voice that the hat had attitude, and that it was just looking for a head to sit on. It wasn’t simply his words that impressed, it was also how he physically assured us of the idea. Similarly, the graceful arc he displayed in strapping on a new guitar spoke subtly to anyone who was watching.
Throughout the show Taj cycled through guitar, keyboard and banjo, always maintaining a fine balance between singing, strumming, soloing or even whistling. He seemed to be moderating a charismatic dialogue between these components on each song. He has one of the most expressive voices you could hope to find. At times he sounded angelic, other times warm and immediate, and occasionally like a big ‘ol bullfrog. The rhythm section of Kester Smith and Bill Rich served up streamlined, catchy grooves that fit the tunes like a glove.
Songs such as “Blues With a Feeling,” “Corrina, Corrina,” and “Zanzibar” were eagerly received by an audience that seemed fully familiar with Mahal’s repertoire. On “Blues With a Feeling” he was joined onstage by Vieux Farka Toure, the rising star guitar player from Mali who opened the show. When these fellows jammed it was an interesting contrast in roots and style. On this set of standard blues changes Taj veered towards the pentatonic end of the spectrum and Vieux worked more with the major scale, which actually made his own blues licks jump up out of the mix.
The opening set by Toure, son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, was also very well received. Playing a Joe Satriani model Ibanez guitar, dressed in authentic Malian garb, Toure and his band proceeded to keep the audience engaged and bopping for an hour. His set consisted of songs that featured several different sets of three or four chord changes and a whole lot of guitar soloing on top of it all. Although the words to his songs were not in English he was very explanatory between songs as he politely relayed to the audience how he was finding America.
Watching the young man from Mali arrive on the UCLA campus, then play the blues onstage with Taj Mahal on a Korean made guitar, which was designed by an American rock ‘n roller, really made the world seem just a little bit smaller — if only for the length of an entertaining evening.
Taj Mahal photo courtesy of UCLA LIVE.
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