Graded on a Curve:
Taj Mahal, Taj Mahal

Sound reads from the archives, all summer long.Ed.

Taj Mahal’s been at it for longer than some of us (myself included) have been alive, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. He’s got an extensive rack of recordings under his belt, with his self-titled ’68 debut being the most sensible place to begin. Whether a person chooses to scoop up one or more of his albums, elects to soak up what he’s putting down in the live setting, or lets it all hang out and does both, the result will certainly be a highly enlightening good time.

There isn’t really another musician quite like Henry St. Clair Fredericks, the man known to the world by his stage and recording moniker Taj Mahal. While an almost ludicrous number of players have explored the bottomless well of inspiration that is the blues, few have engaged with the form in such a complex, multifaceted manner while remaining so naturally accessible to listeners from different generations and varied backgrounds.

As a farmer and graduate of the University of Massachusetts, where he majored in agriculture and also studied ethnomusicology, he’s emblematic of the once common but increasingly rare phenomenon of individuals well-versed in both the fruits of physical, land-based toil and the rewards of intellectual pursuit. And as a musician, it could perhaps be summed up that Taj Mahal was just substantially more curious than the majority of those touched by the blues impulse, recognizing in the music a connection to a much wider global experience.

While most of his cohorts tapped into one or two streams of the blues; say the early acoustic “country” style and the later electric form it directly inspired, or the grit and fire of ‘50s R&B and the attempts at sophisticating it for a wider audience that developed afterward, Taj interacted with a much broader spectrum and fused it all with distinct but stylistically compatible genres. As his career has progressed he’s incorporated the music of Africa, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific into his vast thing; in fact, after moving to Hawaii in the ‘80s he began hanging socially with local players, a circumstance that resulted in the formation of The Hula Blues Band.

Not to wax too nostalgic, but the emergence of Taj Mahal is directly related to the free-flowing atmosphere of the 1960s. And if soon to bloom into a unique performer, the earliest evidence of his musical personality is pretty closely linked to the huge strides rock music undertook in the mid-part of that decade. After graduating, he and fellow guitarist Jesse Lee Kincaid high-tailed it out west, hooking up with guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Gary Marker (later part of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band), and future Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy (replaced after suffering a broken hand by Kevin Kelley, soon to be a member of The Byrds) to form the Rising Sons.

That group recorded a full album for Columbia, but the only stuff that actually saw release at the time was an obscure single, “Candy Man” b/w “The Devil’s Got My Woman.” Both were covers, the a-side from Rev. Gary Davis and the flip a reading of the Skip James classic, the 45 providing a good taste of Taj’s subsequent direction as a solo performer. And in 1992 the complete recordings of the Rising Sons were finally issued under the title Rising Sons featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, with Sundazed issuing it on LP in 2001.

That record is an essential acquisition for any Taj Mahal fan or ‘60s rock in general, but the best place for a Taj newbie to start would be with his first album proper, released by Columbia in 1968 and also reissued by Sundazed in a mono edition in 2005. Part of the reason is due to a fair amount of overlap between the Rising Sons stuff and Taj Mahal, with the later versions being stronger overall and more representative of the man’s deep and engaging personality.

With Cooder’s rhythm guitar on board, the LP‘s personnel also includes Jesse Ed Davis on lead guitar, James Thomas on bass, Sanford Konikoff on drums, and Taj on guitar, mouth harp and vocals. They form quite the impressive unit, focusing on one original and a slew of covers, conjuring up a strain of blues-rock that was tight but exceptionally spry and already indicative of the leader’s musical acumen. Opener “Leaving Trunk” bursts out of the gate with a deluxe funkiness that points to the tough strut found shortly thereafter on recordings by The Rolling Stones.

This isn’t surprising given Taj’s appearance in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, a truly dandy performance film documented in the same year this album hit first stores. And listening to “Leaving Trunk,” a tune borrowed from the mighty Sleepy John Estes, it becomes easily apparent why a bunch of blues mavens like Mick, Keef, and crew dug the guy so much. Taj’s harmonica playing is sharp and raucous, his vocal’s assertive yet never overwrought, and the whole band quickly locates a bodacious groove and rides it with expert panache.

Next up is a take on Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” and one listen will hip fans of The Allman Brothers’ live bruiser At Fillmore East to exactly where the inspiration for that album’s version of the song derives. But while quite similar, they do possess some noteworthy differences. Both are slide guitar showcases, but Taj’s tone is more in keeping with the general direction that Cali-rock was taking at the time.

By comparison, the gnawing attack of Duane Allman possesses the intensity of a man (and a band) that really had something to prove (which they did). By contrast, the version here just trucks along with an air of smooth confidence, a vibe that’s one of Taj Mahal’s best qualities. And it’s there on the following track, a cover of the Sonny Boy Williamson nugget “Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” the cooking ensemble work easily on par with anything Paul Butterfield or John Mayall’s bands were displaying during this same period.

And from there “Everybody’s Got to Change Sometime,” another exploration of a John Estes song, takes a turn toward the risky proposition of the soul-blues and then fuses it with a nod to Hubert Sumlin’s masterful guitar on Howlin’ Wolf’s stone monster “Killing Floor;” Taj’s vocals even briefly referencing the Wolf’s exquisite growl. The only problem with this slab of swaggering brilliance is that it’s simply too brief.

Side two opens with the album’s sole original composition, the Taj-penned “EZ Rider,” and maybe the best praise that can be bestowed upon its blend of urban soulfulness and down-home grease is to relate how seamlessly it jives with Taj Mahal’s interpretations of top-flight material. As it plays though, it becomes obvious that Taj easily could’ve attempted a career as a straight-up soul belter. Happily for history and the ever-loving right now, he had too many other fish to fry.

Like the following cut for example, a simply fantastic update of “Dust My Broom.” Originally by Robert Johnson, the treatment here is closer to the versions waxed by the electrified study in modernization that was the great Elmore James, and yet it’s also very much its own thing. Instead of trying to mimic or transcend the sheer desperation found on the various recordings James made of the song, a tactic that renders most covers of the tune subpar, the band instead shoots for the same sense of unperturbed confidence that’s found on “Statesboro Blues.”

And it leads into “Diving Duck Blues,” a third grab from the repertoire of Estes, and it’s testament to the enduring worthiness of Taj’s knowledge that he chose explore so many pieces from a figure that if rediscovered was still a relatively untapped source. And he didn’t just spotlight the songs he invigorated them, with this track transformed into an earthy slice of R&B action.

“The Celebrated Walkin’ Blues” closes the album with the expected aplomb. At nearly nine minutes in length, this examination of a traditional piece begins solidly in the Delta-zone and with expert pacing and delivery integrates sly touches of modernity into the framework, Taj’s slide and Konikoff’s drums providing a clinic in how the country got plugged into the city and had such an impact on the course of 20th century music.

It’s a superb ending to the record, and it provides a big tip-off to the future direction of Taj Mahal’s career. For decades now he’s been an extraordinary teacher, though his stuff connects so naturally that it can be easy to forget the sum total of his talent.

I’ll likely always cherish his early Columbia discs the most (The Natch’l Blues, released later in ’68 and the ‘69 2LP Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home are both total doozies), but by following his own unique path and by indefatigably taking the music to the stage, he’s managed to remain relevant in a career that’s entered its sixth decade. That’s a feat as rare as his talents are unique, and the combination of the two distinguishes him as one of our most worthy artists.


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