Taj Mahal Promises to Take Us Home at The Egg

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On Saturday, July 20th, Taj Mahal celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of his double album Giant Step/De Old Folk At Home with a special show at The Egg in Albany. That album changed the paradigm in how blues was received by the white mainstream youth market of the ’60s.

“Here, I found an incredible group of people that were ready to let me stretch out in my blues and really get it,” recalls Taj about the guys that played on the electric cuts of Giant Step.  (De Ole Folks at Home, on the other hand, is an acoustic album featuring Taj on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and harp.) “They got the folk blues side and went to the next level which brought in groups like Siegel-Schwall, Barry Goldberg, the Blues Project, Paul Butterfield and guys like Jr. Wells and Buddy Guy, and I was going to see Muddy Waters at Paul’s Mall in Boston.”

Photo by Jim Gilbert

In the mid-60s the folk community centered in Harvard Square and Greenwich Village saw black blues as a subcontext of the American folk music of white artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Maria Muldaur, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Ian and Sylvia, Sandy Bull, and The Green Brier Boys. There was a chasm between “real” folk and “real” blues.” A few white artists like Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk bridged that chasm by playing songs from both the folk and blues genres in the popular coffeehouses of the day. African American electric blues guitarists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed might as well have been from another planet.

Black folk blues artists like Richie Havens and Jackie Washington got a nod from the folkies in Harvard Square and Greenwich Village who went to see them live in the coffeehouses, but electric blues guitarists generally played only jazz clubs that served alcohol where you had to be 21, locking out most of the students who were igniting the folk boom. Taj Mahal early on bridged the gap between both electric and acoustic blues, essentially breaking through the barrier that initially had folk fans booing Dylan when he “sold out” acoustic folk fans by having the very electric Paul Butterfield Blues Band back him at the Newport Folk Festival and subsequent tour in 1965.

“I wanted an acoustic/electric sound,” says Taj today. “I didn’t want that electric sound. (He makes an abrasive scratchy noise.) Somebody had already covered that, and nobody had figured out how to blend these instruments. People listened to the National guitar, the harmonica, the banjo, mandolin, acoustic piano, a lot of stuff that was bringing people into their actual physical self as opposed to playing this electronic stuff, and they had to relate to it. I’m glad to have played a part in opening up their minds that connect with everybody. I mean it goes way out there.”

Photo by Jim Gilbert

On Giant Step/De Old Folk At Home, Taj cuts a swath across genres that had never been tackled by one artist before, setting a precedent that he would follow in scores of albums he released in the next 50 years. On 22 cuts he covers electric blues (“Good Morning Little School Girl”), folk blues (Leadbelly’s “Keep Your Hands Off Her” and Rev. Gary Davis’ “Candy Man”), mainstream folk (Carol King and Gerry Goffin’s “Take A Giant Step”), rock (“Bacon Fat” by Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson of The Band), rhythm ’n’ blues (“Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price) and originals that touched on rags like his signature song “Fishin’ Blues.”

His single criterion of choosing good songs regardless of genre has made him the darling of trendsetters in a plethora of styles, playing with artists ranging from the Rolling Stones and Sammy Hagar to Vusi Mahlaselas and Lee Ritenour. He’s toured with Experience Hendrix, played Bonnaroo, and shared the Lincoln Center stage with Wynton Marsalis

Taj is the eldest of seven children born to a father who was a West Indian jazz musician and follower of Jamaican born black nationalist Marcus Garvey. His mother was a gospel choir singer from South Carolina, and they lived in Springfield, Massachusetts. Taj Mahal earned an animal husbandry degree from the University of Massachusetts in the mid-60s. Not exactly the typical background for a blues artist who would change the very paradigm of blues for the last half-century.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

While most of the African American blues artists of the 1960s who came from Chicago or the Mississippi Delta were oblivious to popular music of the day, Taj Mahal was painfully aware of pop culture and made a concerted effort to avoid the top 40 chart-toppers influencing his own playing. He references struggles the Everly Brothers had having to perform some of their commercial hits which they didn’t like. “They always played to the expectation of the crowd. I came out of a jazz background. The African influence on black American music and basically the music of the world is about the experience of going where the music takes you. That is not just music playing down to the audience.

“I was very excited by people who really could tell the difference between some commercial piece of crap and somebody really sitting there with a guitar playing real music. My band never sounded like there was nobody home. They all had personality and also, too, because of that sound, once you hear it, it stays in your head as to what it is, who it is. Yeah, it was really good music.”

His 1969 band featured himself on vocals, harmonica, banjo, and Mississippi national steel-bodied guitar; Gary Gilmore on electric bass; and drummer Chuck “Brother” Blackwell. But the secret weapon to this early crossover band was the late guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. “When I heard Jesse Ed Davis, his impression of the blues was his expression. That made it sound unique. You go back and listen to those records. Listen to all – I won’t call names but all those guys that were supposed to be big blues guys back then. Many of those guys are still around, and you check with them, and you ask them, and they all love Jesse Ed Davis because he had his own sound. Who played like him? Nobody! That’s what I was looking for. I was unique, and I wanted to be with people who sounded unique.”

Photo by Jim Gilbert

When Taj Mahal signed with Columbia Records, surprisingly he was given free reign by label head and hitmaker Clive Davis. “They didn’t know what to do with me really. Here comes a guy who has his own way, has a different name, comes in and plays music and sounds different. He’s got a major native American guitar player (Jesse Ed Davis) with him. He’s got two white guys in the rhythm section. The band sounds like it’s kicking down the road. It was certainly an answer to the British Invasion with the blues, and what kind of reception would it get? There isn’t anybody like me.”

In 2009 Taj described the evolution of his sound leading to the release of his double album like this. “The product and project went from that raw first album to a little bit more sophisticated finished with Nat’l Blues and then really finally distilled when it got down to the third double album. Clive was a huge supporter of everybody that was in the record company. He went to everybody’s gigs. I saw him everywhere. He was no slouch. He really is a music person, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s the last man standing. The rest of ’em are fuckin’ suits, accountants, and a bunch of lawyers. They could be selling string, shoes, washing machines. Almost all of the albums I’ve been like totally the guy involved with everything every step of the album. I don’t leave a whole lotta stuff to chance.” 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

It would take years before Taj Mahal became the well-known empresario of the blues he is today. He lost Jesse Ed Davis to session work with bigger names like Clapton, John Lennon, The Monkees and Jackson Browne because the Taj Mahal band wasn’t a major commercial success, but Taj never compromised his musical standards. “We were victims of the business, what the business was. And we didn’t know how to deal with the guys. It was every man for himself. They didn’t expect that we could think.”

Jesse Ed Davis would often quote Socrates and Plato and graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Taj Mahal is an intellect who has an encyclopedic knowledge a huge repertoire of music with blues as its fulcrum. “Blues creeps in around behind (people). They can’t figure out how they got there because they keep thinking linearly. There’s no one in the world who’ll tell ya time is linear and life is linear. It isn’t. It’s all cyclical. It’s all in circles. That’s where the problem comes where you get the western ideal.  It’s all in a line. It moves there, and then it moves over here. You know, that’s not how it works. It’s all happening.”

Talking to Taj is like reading Chaucer in Middle English. You need 100 pages of footnotes to fully understand what he says in context. As for whether his Egg show will be dominated by songs from these half-century old albums, he’s evasive. “I don’t- I didn’t play a lot of those songs for a long time because it’s like that wasn’t the purpose. You know what? They’re calling the next (interview), man. I gotta go!”

Taj Mahal will perform at The Egg with his quartet featuring Kester Smith on drums, Bill Rich on bass and Bobby Ingano on guitar.  Since my interview with Taj in May, Peter Lesser at The Egg has put out a press release saying that “advance ticket purchasers will have the opportunity to request the songs they would like to hear from the Giant Step and De Ole Folks at Home albums by submitting their choices via a survey that Taj Mahal will reference as he prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this classic double LP.”   

 Tickets to the performance are $49.50 and $39.50 and are currently available at The Egg Box Office at the Empire State Plaza, by telephone – 518-473-1845 or online at www.theegg.org

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