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Invitation to the blues: Taj Mahal at the Egg.Photo: Joe Putrock

Mahal Comes Alive
By B.A. Nilsson

Taj Mahal
The Egg, Aug. 3

By 1952, recordings weren’t very often reissued, so when Harry Smith assembled what came to be known as the Anthology of American Folk Music, this collection of 84 obscure songs commercially recorded in the late ’20s and early ’30s knocked the ears off the visionary few who discovered the set. Part of the set’s power is in its programming. By the time you reach song number 84, you’ve suffered the cruelty and heartbreak that informed so much of rural America’s singing. And then the last song turns out to be a gentle number by Texan Henry Thomas about fishing, so sincerely sung that it’s easy to overlook its double-entendre character.

Taj Mahal latched onto “Fishing Blues” early in his career and turned it into a toe-tapping, joyful exhortation; more than three decades after he first recorded it, he and the song have lost none of their joy, as proved at his performance at the Egg last Sunday.

He appeared with bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith, and the three of them put out a disproportionately large sound, inflamed with the rhythmic variety that characterizes Mahal at work.

Where the Harry Smith anthology reveals America’s sadness, Mahal revels in the possibilities of love. Even his blues songs—and there were many in Sunday’s concert—offer more in the way of invitation than complaint.

Other than that, it’s pointless to try to categorize the music or the musicians in this concert. Mahal was mining American (and international) roots long before there were categories for “roots” and “world” music, keeping the blues at its center.

“I don’t care if it’s jazz, folk, rock, R&B, or even rap,” said Mahal early in the long single set he performed. “It’s got to tell a story.” He told plenty. We traveled back a century or more to Stagger Lee’s fatal shooting of Billy DeLyons, a story recounted in more than 200 different versions of a song with many different titles, but arranged by Mahal into a foot-stomping celebration of a purely evil man. His performance of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Creole Belle” was as gentle as Jesse Ed Davis’s “Corrina” was explosive, but always with a driving exuberance among the musicians that infected the audience from the start.

The lines “Put your arms around me like a circle ’round the sun/You know I’ll love you baby when my easy ridin’s done” showed up three or four times in one song or another during the program, illustrating the blues vocabulary that evolved along with the musical form—and underscoring the fact that Mahal draws freely and appropriately from that vocabulary.

“Blackjack Davey,” a traditional song that asks, “Who’s gonna shoe your pretty little feet?” shares material with songs recorded by Harry Belafonte (“Who’s Gonna Be Your Man?”), Jerry Garcia (“I Truly Understand”) and Doc Watson (“A-Roving on a Winter’s Night”), but it’s closest to “The Whistling Gypsy.” But that’s not enough for Mahal, who furthers the song with an island beat, also making it a showcase for the versatility of Rich and Smith.

Much of the program comprised songs that have been associated with the guitarist-singer since early in his career, with originals like “Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue,” “Queen Bee” and the ultra-smooth “Baby, You’re My Destiny.”

As a guitarist, Mahal has a fingerpicking style that burrows deep into the blues of a song like “Betty and Dupree” and discovers more mood shifts than the lyrics may suggest. Even a wistful number like Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” took on a more complex edge with Mahal’s intricate licks.

And he is, as always, a killer of a singer, playing with the beat, the lyrics, even the sound of his own voice. Never mind the scholarship this review may suggest: Mahal made the songs visceral objects. By the finish of the show, he got the audience out of their seats and dancing. It’s become too easy of late to build a shrine out of this music; Taj Mahal avoids that by making the songs live and dance.

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