February 26, 2008

Taj Mahal in Ithaca: A Musical Reflection

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I won’t beat around bush — the crowd at the State Theater last Thursday was old. It was about even-split between a graying, be-ponytailed group clad mostly in fleece jackets with Barack Obama buttons and a group of rowdy, mustachioed, big-bellied contractors wearing their work jackets over old Buddy Guy t-shirts.

The unfortunate state of rock and roll music is a lot like Taj Mahal himself: a 250 pound, 67-year-old man shaking his hips on stage. It still sounds great, but you have to wonder why this guy — long past the apogee of his popularity — is still sticking around.

Taj — along with the roots and blues music he plays — is still the best. But it’s obviously, painfully clear that his era is over; his time 30 or 40-years past. The relevance of blues music in America is pitifully in doubt. It’s an era when so many Americans learn the blues backwards — if they learn it at all — mainly from the Muddy-Waters-via-Willie Dixon covers of a little outfit called Led Zeppelin.

But if your parents didn’t give you any exposure to classic rock, much less real roots or blues music, the game is off. As New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in his controversial piece, “A Paler Shade of White,” most modern rock, and especially indie rock, has “lost its soul.” The blending of black and white folk traditions that first created rock and roll has largely been left by the wayside.

Roots and blues music has always felt a little less like a young, svelte indie scenester than a dirty old man with a growl in his voice and a rhythm in his fingers. For two-odd hours last Thursday night, the State Theatre wasn’t host to a museum piece, but rather a living, breathing history lesson on the disparate, tangled roots of American popular music. This was, after all, Taj Mahal. And maybe it was time to just stop bitching and listen to the blues. Like Taj said, Puxatawney Phil had seen his shadow and there were only six weeks of winter to go. It was about time to get our mojos working. So that’s what we did.

Taj Mahal’s music straddles the line between the Chicago electric blues tradition and that of the acoustic country blues. His country blues tends to be less gritty and more whimsical than most, a sound perhaps born of his many years spent living in Hawaii and, later, in Berkeley, California. Yet he’s also written standards like “She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride,” which opens up the original Blues Brothers movie, and first popularized the Blind Willie McTell tune “Statesboro Blues,” which later was famously performed live by the Allman Brothers Band.

Thursday, however, Taj’s tendency to digress into Hawaii and Caribbean-inspired yacht-rock soft songs was remedied by the authentic grit of his country blues sets and the blistering distorted rattle, hum and buzz of his sets of Chicago electric blues in the tradition of greats like Elmore James.
As if out to prove he was no mere practicioner of a lost art, Taj was as raunchy as any Hotlanta rapper worth his salt: “This song is dedicated to ladies that have critical mass in the backfield,” he said, opening a number called “Big Legged Women Are Coming Back In Style.”

Vocally, Taj was in top form — his normally gravelly-yet-high voice pitched and yawed between falsetto howls and deep, bass growls uncharacteristic of most of his work but perfectly in tune with the blues idiom. His scatting, also, was surprisingly on point.

The best number was a house-shaking extended version of “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” the classic song by Sonny Boy Williamson II. The Chicago blues tune led Taj into a blistering and incendiary distorted guitar solo, followed by a Cab-Calloway-at- the-Palace-Hotel-Ballroom style sing-a-long punctuated by a call-and-response of “hidey-hidey-hidey-hi, hodey-hodey-hodey-ho” and the like. The blues legend proved that he had, after all, a reason for sticking around: he brought the house down.