to the blues: Taj Mahal at the Egg.Photo:
By B.A. Nilsson
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
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.
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.
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
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.