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Blues legend Taj Mahal still honoring ‘ancient laws’

Blues legend Taj Mahal still honoring ‘ancient laws’

Will mark 50 years since groundbreaking double album
Blues legend Taj Mahal still honoring ‘ancient laws’
Taj Mahal at the Palace in 1973.
Photographer: Michael Hochanadel For The Daily Gazette

Saturday at The Egg in Albany, Taj Mahal celebrates 50 years since his landmark albums “Giant Step” and “De Ole Folks at Home” hit the same day, fueling a blues revival echoing to this day. A phone interview last week from Taj’s Los Angeles home, and three past Taj shows here, reveal his giant step to roots-music eminence.

In November 1973, Taj Mahal opened for Hot Tuna at Albany’s Palace Theatre, but was delayed getting to Albany from Montreal. Hot Tuna wouldn’t play first, so impatient fans grumbled in their seats, waiting. Concert pal Michael Davis and I hit Joe’s Deli on Madison for a late dinner and returned to the Palace in a much better mood than fans whose angry yells greeted Taj and his trio (including Billy Rich, bassist then and now) onstage. Taj said, “No” and waved his hand. Quiet fell. He had us.

He laughed when I told him this looked like a Jedi mind trick.

“I wasn’t afraid,” he said. “All you gotta do is focus and not show any kind of fear, or it’s over.”

He continued, “One time I played between Edgar Winter’s White Trash and Emerson Lake & Palmer. There were 10,000 people in this place with three tiers of balcony and the whole floor, all full.”

Taj recalled, “People were hooting and hissing and ladies of the night were strolling around, and you could hear them whispering, talking about drugs they might be selling.” Taj had a banjo, a steel guitar, a kalimba and a piano. He imitated the MC’s frightened intro: “He said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Taj Mahal,’ and he ran off. I walked out there and sized up the situation. I saw these people were not connected to their higher self; they were not in tune. … I took the mic down to the kalimba and I played for 10 minutes, and the whole audience gave me a standing ovation. I pulled them together in the humanity they were not in touch with. I felt they connected to me and as a collective.”

He ruled the Palace the same way, putting rowdy Hot Tuna fans in his pocket.

In January 1988, he played mostly piano at QE2, again using his Jedi blues trick. Logically linking piano to guitar over the phone, he said, “ ‘Statesboro Blues’ — most people never heard the original by Blind Willie McTell. Everybody knows it in the canon of Southern-style blues rock, by the Allman Brothers; but no one knew where it started.”

He cited 12-string guitar masters Leadbelly and Jesse Fuller, adding, “Then you came upon Blind Willie McTell and he played guitar more like a piano; bluesy and raggy, too.” Taj taught McTell’s version to Jesse Ed Davis, guitarist with Taj and Ry Cooder in the Rising Suns. “He put it into a really great form that inspired Duane Allman, who played slide guitar. He was a monster slide guitar player” — inspiring decades of Allman Brothers’ shows.

Going back to the source gave Taj mastery of reggae, calypso and jazz as well as blues. He once led a band with four tubas in what he called “an innovative move: putting jazz and blues together.”

“When you take millions of Africans and disperse them to the Caribbean and South America and the south of the United States, if you’re listening to music from there, you’re going to hear how it all relates,” he said. “You’re going to hear Africa.”

“It’s all part of my life,” he said. “I grew up with Caribbean food and music, and food and music from the south,” said Taj, noting his Caribbean-born father met his mother at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra.

Early in his recording career, Taj “lucked upon real good players from the South, guys like me who were impressed with the sound of the older guys, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Elmore James.” He said, “It was obvious there was no school for that anywhere, no New England Folk Conservatory of the Blues.”

He insisted, “You had to be in the culture and around it, around the sounds of the South, the Caribbean, Africa. I saw myself as a part of it, and I knew nobody else was going to do what I did” — at least not then. He said, “My job is to take this to the next generation, to take this input and do something with it.”

The groundbreaking, genre-shaking double album he released in 1969 and celebrates Saturday did two somethings.

“Normally when people do a double album, the second is an extension of the first, of what’s on the first album,” Taj said. He went a different way. “We wanted to do the original source material.”

After “Taj Mahal” and “The Nach’l Blues” albums, he recorded “Giant Step” with a trio, “in a slick and sophisticated way.” He recorded “De Old Folks At Home” alone. “One afternoon, I went in and had the engineer roll the tape,” he said. “ ‘Giant Step’ was electric and arranged; ‘Ole Folks’ was raw,” Taj said, crediting producer David Rubinson for honoring his vision, taking a giant step out of the way so sounds of the ole folks came through, unpolished.

At The Egg on Saturday, he’ll play excerpts from the double album, as suggested by ticket-buyers, part of his interactive music-making ideal. “The original human rules for that [African-rooted] music mean that the audience is a part of the performance,” he said. “The musician onstage is not playing down to them. We’re playing together. There’s a part that you [the audience] have.” He said, “Those laws are ancient. It doesn’t matter what century you’re in. When you’re hearing and feeling the instrument, those feelings were built into it.”

In his most recent local show, Taj played The Egg with Keb’ Mo’, a roots-deep duo dubbed TajMo. Fans told Taj for years that the younger musician plays similar back-to-the-roots blues.

“It wasn’t so much that he was sounding like me,” said Taj. “He was another black man doing acoustic music. It may have been inspired by me,” he acknowledged. “And he did songs from my repertoire.” Taj added, “I was always looking for company out there, a black man making acoustic music.”

Taj Mahal brings good company Saturday in his return to The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany): Billy Rich, bass; Kester Smith, drums; and Bobby Ingano, steel and electric guitar. 8 p.m. $49.50, $39.50. 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org

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