February 4, 2013

Still Singing the Blues

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In an interview with Clash Magazine, Taj Mahal said, “To me, as people say, the blues is a natural fact. Whether it’s a hundred years behind or a hundred years in the future, it really ultimately is this feeling that people have deep within themselves that they can feel, move, their thoughts, their life; it’s all being told within that framework.” To me, this is Taj Mahal’s explanation of the touch his music has retained over his 53-year career: He has always been a mouthpiece for some latent, upbeat-sadness that cadences through our mental states.

However much the blues is about sadness, Taj’s performance at the State Theatre Saturday night brought only cheers and enthusiastic audience feedback. The 70-year-old musician still has an enticing stage presence and a knack for communicating with the audience. Taj’s hands are still as ophidian and quick as they were when he recorded his material decades ago and his attitude seems to pack even more smack, sass and humor.

While keeping his spry energy, Taj took a new outlook on his old material. Classics like “Corinna” and “Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue” were played at a much slower pace with more emphasis on Taj’s vocals. His voice took on a new, saucier tone and he often resorted to the audience to fill in the chorus. His vocals seemed to set the pace of the music, even sometimes overriding his bassist (Bill Rich) and drummer (Kester Smith), the two that complete The Taj Mahal Trio.

With only three members, the band was limited to a fraction of Taj’s material. Across the years, he has embraced a legion of genres and influences and with each reinvention, he’s added new instruments into the mix. All songs featuring a harmonica, including some of his best (“EZ Rider,” “Dust My Broom” and “Leaving Trunk”) were absent from the setlist and his West Indies/roots period was limited to a few representative songs.

The song that did call back to his roots-reggae phase was “West African Revelation” with lyrics discussing his epiphanies about his musical and ancestral roots as well as those of other African Americans distanced from their pre-American history. The song is one of the many in his prolific discography to speak on the tragedy that accompanies African American history but the only one that he played saturday night. Taj seems incredibly aware of his audience — predominantly baby boomers, almost entirely white.

Taj Mahal has expressed disappointment about the racial makeup of his listenership and in interviews, shed tears over the fact that black Americans have largely stopped attending his shows and have moved on from the blues. The mainly white audience at the State was likely not a surprise to him as he seemed prepared to make light of the situation. When a white audience member called out an inaudible sentence or two, he straightened up his back, pinched a pair of imaginary glasses on his nose and straightened his collar and, in a stiff, “white” accent, mocked the audience, “Please articulate your sentences so that the rest of us can hear you.” The audience laughed back and the racial divisions temporarily liquidated into humor. Regardless of his previous statements, Taj Mahal communicated that the blues is a “natural fact” too timeless to age into folklore, too universal to be owned by one ethnic experience.

Original Author: Henry Staley

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