Taj Mahal - Maestro
Looking at the liner notes, I was prepared to dislike this CD. I love Taj, I have many of his recordings and I’ve seen and heard him many times. However, the propensity among modern artists and producers to have other “name” folks fatten their personnel lists bothers me. It is often a waste of musical space. Ah, Taj Mahal, though, is a musician’s musician. He ain’t wasting nothin’.
Employing his Phantom Blues Band, a killer ensemble, he interprets Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back,” his own “Slow Drag” and a burning cover of the Bo Diddley take on “Diddy Wah Diddy.” Taj also does a remake of his own “Further On Down the Road” with this unit. I’m thinking that he was thinking of his guitar partner Jesse Ed Davis when choosing this tune. Davis was co-writer on this simple statement. Before his death he was Mahal’s partner-in-crime.
The title “Slow Drag” is a little misleading. In the early 20th century this was, in African American culture, a dance tempo. It was a sort of Black Tango, sexy and intimate. This tune is much more a ‘cakewalk’ step. The lyrics reference jail time, Taj employing irony, part of the African American lyric tradition. It does manage to touch the early part of the last century because of the banjo. Randy Newman and Ry Cooder have both traveled in this artistic zone.
“Scratch My Back” has none of the laconic nature associated with the original or even most covers. Likewise, “Diddy Wah Diddy” is a Taj Mahal reading, owing little to any other version.
The band called the New Orleans Social Club is loose and nasty, reflecting those NOLA values [Two Meters and a young Neville are present]. The two tracks on which they work are right where they should be. In Taj’s hands Fats Domino’s “Hello Josephine” is not the rollicking celebration of the 50s. Mahal updates the song as something funky, a swamp thang. The back-to-back organ and piano solos are the kind of playing that is a joy. “I Can Make You Happy” is a straight paean to Howlin’ Wolf. Taj uses the gift of his voice to ‘do the Wolf.’ The coolest facet of this song is Taj has managed to write a Wolf-style one-chord riff (Think Smokestack Lightnin’” or “How Many More Years”) but it is based on two chords and inverted from what most musicians would conceive.
Los Lobos joins with Mahal for a very nasty lo-tech cover of Big Joe Turner’s “TV Mama.” The decidedly ‘retro’ attempt to evoke 1953 is successful. I’m not sure it was necessary, but it works very nicely. I can’t help but enjoy the “big wide screen” metaphor… I’m so tired of ‘booty’ references. “Never Let You Go” is something you need to be aware of, Hawai’in Reggae. I’m sure it didn’t take long to teach the East L.A. vatos to reach across the cultural line to do a good job on this tune because they all are committed to tradition as well as progression. Bass player Conrad Lozano handles the Jamaican rhythm admirably.
Ben Harper, knighted by Taj in 1992, contributes “Dust Me Down.” The metaphor misses the mark but it stands as a nice partnership between the Maestro and the student [Harper’s grandparents were friends with Taj].
The Ziggy Marley Band does a subtle job on “Black Man, Brown Man.” In the 40s and 50’s this song would have been a coded criticism/commentary like the seemingly banal “Yellow Bird” or “Sly Mongoose.” In this new millennium it serves as a reminder for the marginalized to retain a connection with their lineage. No anger at ‘Babylon,’ no killing of the Sheriff, just a reminder.
“Strong Man Holler” won’t reveal anything new, but it is a smoldering cut. The topic of lust has been better addressed, but this is a good, sweaty blues tune. Billy Branch brings that Chicago harp sound that reinforces the sentiment.
“Zanzibar” is out of place as the sixth track, but an acceptable song because, like everything Taj Mahal does, it is sincere. It won’t hurt you to hear one of the great Nigerian kora players and a ‘genuine’ African vocalist provide this texture in the middle of a lesson about American vernacular music. If you are a fan of Ry Cooder, you’ll understand. If you are not, there’s something else you should do.
This might be a killer introduction to the range of modern Blues and a little bit of “World Music” for your wife or son. Taj Mahal delivers the ‘rill thang’ without being scary to none but the narrow-minded.
Reviewer John Harrelson has been playing Blues since 1965 and worked in virtually every genre of music; Folk, Country, Jazz, R&B and Rock. He holds a Ph.D in Historical Musicology from the Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology. www.johnharrelson.com