CD Review: Taj Mahal – The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 (Columbia/Legacy, 2012)
This 2-CD set of previously unreleased material provides a superb complement to the previously issued Essential anthology. Where Essential set surveyed thirty-three years of Mahal’s immense catalog, this latest collection focuses on five years from early in his career. Those formative years found Mahal exploring numerous threads of the blues, including pre-war styles, as well as soul and funk. The first disc includes a dozen finished studio tracks that clock in at a generous 77 minutes. The recordings were made in Woodstock, Miami, the San Francisco Bay Area and New Orleans, the latter produced by Allen Toussaint in rustic, drumless arrangements. The bands include 3- and 4-piece combos, as well as larger aggregations that feature the Dixie Flyers and a brass band. Jesse Edwin Davis’ guitar provides a strong, guiding presence on many tracks, and Mahal’s harmonica adds an expressive voice on a superb cover of Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and a soulful instrumental version of “People Get Ready” titled “Butter.”
Disc two features a 1970 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The live set features both original material and covers, including Sleepy John Estes’ “Diving Duck Blues,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” and a lengthy take on Robby Robertson and Garth Hudson’s pre-Band era “Bacon Fat.” Mahal starts his set – an opening slot for Johnny Winter and Santana – with a gutsy, a cappella version of the traditional “Runnin’ by the Riverside.” His stage manner is warm and welcoming, offering detailed introductions to his songs and drawing on the folk tradition of audience participation. His performances are backed by a superb four-piece that includes Jesse Davis (guitar), John Simon (Piano), Bill Rich (Bass) and James Karsten (Drums), as well as Mahal’s National Steel and harmonica.
Perhaps most amazing is that this entire set – both the studio and live tracks – is previously unreleased. Few artists ever record material this good, let alone in such quantity that they can leave some of it in the vault. Mahal is equally compelling in the studio as he is on stage, something few artists achieve; his studio recordings breathe freely and his stage work is lively but tight. Miles Mellough’s liner notes are detailed and informative, though a bit over-the-top in their devotion. Sound quality is good throughout, with the concert tapes sounding full and punchy – perhaps having Santana and Johnny Winter on the bill brought out the A-list live truck. This is a terrific find for Mahal’s fans, providing insight into both his studio process and the musical alchemy he brought to the stage.