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A look at blues’ legend Taj Mahal

July 12, 2012
By Mark Miller , The Herald-Star

This week I take a look at a coming retrospective on blues' legend Taj Mahal.

"The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973," Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal is best known as a singer/songwriter/performer who got his start in the late 1960s playing a resonator guitar and channeling the raw, deep, Delta blues of Charlie Patton and Son House. Mahal, who became better known to the late 1960s hipporatti as one of the performers in the Rolling Stones' infamous "Rock and Roll Circus," a show taped for British television in 1968 that also starred John Lennon, Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton and the Who, but never released until decades later.

The Stones admired Mahal for his devotion to country blues, although Mahal was always more than just that. Like the Stones, he took American blues and reformed it into his own unique vision. Also like the Stones, the blues wasn't his only love, as he also was influenced by jazz, rock, reggae and world music.

I became familiar with his music while working on the weekends at a used record and bookstore in Portland, Ore., several years ago. There were an awful of of records in the store from obscure '60s artists, and there was an entire cache of albums by Taj Mahal. I can't say they were big sellers - if they sold at all - but I listened to many of them while at the store. I came to really enjoy his spin on the blues, although I lost touch with him as an artist after leaving Portland.

The coming two-CD retrospective, set to be released Aug. 21 by Sony/Legacy, includes one disc of never-before-released material from those fertile years in his career along with a CD of a show recorded at Britian's Royal Albert Hall in 1970, also never released.

Listening to the first CD I was surprised at how Mahal's material doesn't sound at all dated. The cuts with his band are wonderful, and I can't imagine why they weren't released at the time. I especially like his cover of Bob Dylan's "Pity the Poor Immigrant," one of Dylan's more poignant, lesser-known songs.

The real gold lies in the unreleased concert disc, which is a revelation. It's hard to not be impressed by the opener, "Running by the Riverside," which Taj sings totally a cappella. It takes a lot of guts and confidence to stand alone on a stage and open with just vocals, but it works and sets the stage for what is to come. And it only gets better from there.

The free-wheeling concert includes several songs with Mahal and just his resonator, while others include his band. The range and diversity are most welcome, as Mahal and band burn on "Diving Duck Blues" by blues' legend Sleepy John Estes, "Checking Up on My Baby" by the great harmonica-playing bluesman Sony Boy Williamson, a wonderful take on the traditional "Oh, Susanna" and a rollicking version of the Band's "Bacon Fat." I also really enjoyed Mahal's delta-influenced originals, which include "John, Ain't It Hard" and the soulful "Tomorrow May Not be Your Day."

It's all warm and soulful and heartfelt. Mahal's in-between song patter also is enjoyable, as he educates the audience on what is essentially American folk music. There's a great, intimate vibe throughout the concert. If you've ever wondered where Taj Mahal got his mojo, check out his influences, although Mahal's body of work deserves deep respect as well. This retrospective shows Mahal truly was an original during an age of originals.

Highly recommended.

(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)

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