Taj Mahal Review – Raleigh, NC 2-18-12
Taj Mahal Trio
Meymandi Concert Hall
February 18, 2012
By Grant Britt
At Raleigh’s Meymandi Hall Saturday night with his trio, Taj Mahal conducted a 90 minute master class in rhythm and blues.
When Mahal first stepped on stage, you could tell by his attire this was no ordinary bluesman. Decked out in a jaunty panama hat, Hawaiian shirt and pressed khakis, he looked like a Caribbean tour guide, which in a very real sense, he is.
But for the first part of his show, it’s all about blues basics, down and dirty. While Mahal growled salaciously about “the little girl with the big wide screen,” the rhythm section, bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith, laid down a whomping backbeat on a raucous cover of Big Joe Turner’s “TV Mama,” from his ’08 release, Maestro.
Mahal mentioned his Carolina connection, claiming relatives on his mother’s side, the influence of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s nephew, who taught him how play blues guitar at 13, and his enduring love for North Carolina delicacies like cheese grits and dumplins as big as your fist.
Mahal trotted out his National steel for a bigfoot stomping version of ‘72’s “Bound to Love Me Some.” “Ladies, scream,” Mahal ordered, as his trio got down with some back-alley Chicago blues on “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” and they did.
He introduced “Annie Mae” as a song about an old girlfriend, but the lyrics revealed a family affair that has Mahal busy ogling Annie Mae’s sis, cuz and granny too, all delivered in that magnificent growl that pours out like hot asphalt studded with gravel.
“Blews,” he growled to the band as a countoff- “aw, aw-aw-how-how -how,” launching into “Mean Old World,” pounding out the melody on keys.
He did a version of “Corinna” that managed to sound Appalachian and at the same time about to break out with island fever and go sailing across the cay.
Mahal’s world music influences had been creeping into his music all evening, but “Queen Bee” finally let them spill over as he sashayed across the stage to the island beat. He followed up with a Caribbean style version of “Freight Train,” chiming away on guitar as drummer Smith pounded out a Bo Diddley shave and a haircut beat behind him. Even without the vocal support of Angelique Kidjo and the kora accompaniment of Toumani Diabate, “Zanzibar,” from ’08s Maestro, showed off Mahal’s African roots with a polyrhythmic conversation within the trio.
Mahal attempted “Roscoe’s Mule” on banjo, but a series of string malfunctions caused him to abandon the instrument mid-song, finishing on guitar as a hillbilly romp with its African roots showing.
He presented the folk rock classic “Stag- O–Lee” in a syncopated, Caribbean style reworking of the song Mississippi John Hurt recorded in ’28, Lloyd Price made famous in ’59, and has been revamped by artists including Dr. John, The Clash and the Black Keys.
Introducing “Creole Belle,” Mahal said that he knew how to play down and dirty, greasy blues, but wanted to play the beautiful syncopated finger-picking style of Mississippi John Hurt. He’s obviously mastered that, but adds a Caribbean lilt to it as well, an island flavor by way of the Mississippi Delta, on his version.
Although Mahal’s speaking voice is a gravely croak, it rises into a mellifluous lilting instrument that belies his age, rising effortlessly into the higher registers as he closed with a funky, scat singing, rump-shaking version of “Gonna Move Up To The Country Paint My Mailbox Blue.”
Before playing what he called the number one wedding song in America for his encore, Mahal thanked the audience for allowing him to do what he’s been doing all these years without the interference of record companies. “You made this,” the 71-year -old performer said, celebrating his 50thmusical anniversary with a rendition of “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes” that had the 1700 seat theater on its feet, the women misty-eyed, and the men wanting to be Taj Mahal, for at least one night.