Review: Taj Mahal leads upbeat cruise through the blues
SCHENECTADY “Your choice,” offered bluesman Taj Mahal on Saturday at Proctors: “’King Bee’ or ‘Paint My Mailbox Blue.’” “Both!” demanded a woman near me. “Mix ‘em, baby — I don’t know how long I’ll be here!”
Taj Mahal has been here long enough to become a sort of Howlin’ Wolf for our time, using his size and gruff growls to assert the brassy, sly authority of old-time country blues. Most of his tunes — classics to fans, clichés to others — were antiques when he first laid hands on them, back in the 1960s. For the most part on Saturday, songs he’d dusted off decades ago still sounded fresh in his vast voice and huge hands and those of drummer Kester Smith and bassist Bill Rich.
Citing the Bush years as times of “Uh-uh blues,” he proclaimed now the age of “Uh-huh blues” and mostly stayed upbeat, brisk and bawdy. He threw a bunch of burly body English on his opening shuffle, but didn’t hit his stride on guitar until four songs in (after “Easy Rider” and “Fishin’ Blues”) with “Corrina,” all sharpness, snap and sting. “Creole Belle” erupted from a soft lope into staccato Howlin’ Wolf-ish phrasing, with kissing sounds in case anybody missed its lewd charm. He switched from (many!) guitars to keyboard for “Blues With a Feeling,” not losing the feel or the groove, and banjo and ukulele tunes varied the sounds but were still totally Taj.
Billed as “World Blues,” the show was less curatorial than a cruise through familiar Taj territory, though openers Fredericks Brown and Vusi Mahlasela added spice.
Fredericks Brown, the duo of singer Deva Mahal (Taj’s daughter) and keyboardist Stephanie Brown, played soul songs that opened from quiet starts into bigger spaces, like walking from the lobby into the cathedral expanse of Proctors. Stately, braid-haired, Mahal molded her big, Tracy Chapman-like voice to soulful love songs and blues while the tiny Brown half-hid behind keyboards, playing melodies on synthesizer in tones of organ or electric piano with her right hand and thumping basslines with her left on a smaller keyboard. Two songs in, a fan called out: “DAMN, girl!” in awe the audience shared and which Mahal fully earned with “I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t.”
South African singer/guitarist/activist Mahlasela took over alone, playing agile finger-style acoustic guitar, singing in Zulu, Xhosa and English and introducing/explaining songs with such compelling moral force that fans applauded these compact, uplifting speeches as much as the songs themselves. He spoke and sang of forgiveness for the crimes of apartheid against black South Africans and of the beauty in his tormented land. His voice reached from chair-rattling lows to plaster-etching highs, seldom using falsetto, the African tongues allowing percussive clicks and sibilant slurs.
Both Mahlasela and Deva Mahal guested late; Mahlasela partnering in a serene dreamscape and Deva duetting with her dad in “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” — or “Daddy’s” in alternate verses: a sweet coda on a bluesy, big-voiced show.