Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Taj Mahal

It’s not fair to call Taj Mahal a blues artist. He is, but he’s so much more. For years I stayed away from him because I just wasn’t crazy about electric blues. I’m still not, honestly. A lot of it sounds to me like rock and roll stuck in a low gear. So when I snatched up a load of old records from my uncle on a recent trip back to my hometown, I initially looked down my nose at the three Taj Mahal albums in my haul. It took me a week to get around to listening to them. I chose Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home to start with because of the novelty of a double record that’s actually two separate records bound together in a gatefold. The first record, Giant Step, is electric with a full band. The opening track, “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie Anymo’,” is a short and wistful whistling-and-guitar tune that’s nice and mellow. It’s like a nice shoulder rub to ease you into the listening experience. The next song, the title track, is similarly calming but a little more upbeat, with Mahal urging you to “take a giant step outside your mind.” I wouldn’t peg either of these numbers as blues. Forced to categorize, I’d say, “easy-going American music.” The third tune, “Give Your Woman What She Wants,” is straight-up electric blues. If I were more confident in my knowledge, I might say Chicago-style. It’s the kind I usually hate—macho, hard-driving stuff. But here, set in contrast to the first two songs, it takes on a nice shine. Plus there’s a quality to Mahal’s voice, a sort of soft raspy-ness and soulfulness, that mitigates the testosterone overdrive of the genre and carries the mellow vibe through from the first two songs. Side two opens with a cover of “Six Days on the Road” done up in the groovy, high-speed way the Flying Burrito Brothers did it, except Mahal seems to be having more fun with it, like he’s getting a big ol’ kick out of being a black dude belting out a country trucker song.
            The second record, De Ole Folks at Home, is acoustic. Like its companion, it gathers a wide range of sound and unifies the pieces. It opens with a rhythmic work crew song, slides into an instrumental slide guitar number that calls to mind Blind Willie Jefferson by way of Ry Cooder, breezes into a banjo number with a tempo that’s reminiscent of blues but not quite. The blues are always present on these records, but they’re not always front and center. They’re more like the DNA that underlie and bind all the songs together.
            After spinning these two discs, I was hooked on Taj Mahal, so I reached for another record and grabbed The Natch’l Blues. I was leery, fearful that this would be the slogging blues record I dread. And true to its name, it’s more consistently bluesy. It came out a year ahead of Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home, and it was just his second record, so maybe he wasn’t quite ready to stretch out so much. Still, he pushed the boundaries a bit, especially on “Corinna” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” both of which drift into a soul territory, and even a little bit of gospel on the latter. The bluesy numbers have the kind of hippy swing to them that you’d expect from a record released in 1968, the notes bent ever so slightly, as if to suggest the silhouette of a go-go dancer shaking on a table top. And throughout there’s still that voice that’s soft and hard-edged all at the same time, and has a way of finding the soul of the melody and hitting you where you live. This is blues even a blues hater can love.

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