Taj Mahal The Real Thing

[Columbia; 1971]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: brass bands, acoustic blues, boogie rock
Others: Ry Cooder, Robert Johnson

The brilliance of Taj Mahal lies in the fact that he realized the blues was not a frozen style preserved in a formaldehyde of Delta dust and urban grit, but rather a template to apply any number of variations to. When I saw him in 2000 he filled a tiny 15 foot stage with seven musicians, three of them on ukulele. This adventurous spirit is what makes him one of the most exciting artists working within the "folk" lexicon.

For his 1971 live album Taj assembled what may at first seems like an unorthodox line-up but it’s one that actually makes sense considering the genealogy of the blues. He is pictured on the back cover, still rocking a Mississippi National steel bodied guitar decades after electric amplification made its metal resonators quaintly obsolete. Behind him he boasts a tuba section four deep, giving his brass more bounce than any trumpet or sax could ever hope to muster. But it's not all just root notes on the two and four, the brass section (those four tubists also rotate in fluegelhorn, bari sax, bass and valve trombone, and trumpet) give slow cookers like "John, Ain't It Hard" a cosmopolitan grace while opening up full blast for barnstormers like "Sweet Mama Janisse" and "Diving Duck Blues." There's even a beautiful tuba and guitar duet "Tom and Sally Drake" showcasing the ponderous tuba's buttery suppleness in contrast to the biting National guitar.

Taj's ten-man band get plenty of room to boogie, culminating with "You Ain't No Streetwalker Mama, Honey But I Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff," which at 19 minutes couldn't fit onto the original double-LP but now gets to share it's bubbling groove and false ending to anyone who couldn't make it to the Fillmore East. Long jams were the order of the day in the early '70s but Taj avoids the spacey noodling that was the downfall of so many of his contemporaries and instead focuses on just keeping asses moving for most of his set. A master alchemist, Taj Mahal's vision of the blues is just as at home on a dance floor as it is on the back porch.

1. Fishin' Blues
2. Ain't Gwine to Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')
3. Sweet Mama Janisse
4. Going Up to the Country and Paint My Mailbox Blue
5. Big Kneed Gal
6. You're Going to Need Somebody on Your Bond
7. Tom and Sally Drake
8. Diving Duck Blues
9. John, Ain' It Hard
10. She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride
11. You Ain't No Street Walker Mama, Honey but I Sure Do Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff

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