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Good Ol' Taj

The sad part about my relationship with TAJ MAHAL is that it is based almost entirely on The Best of Taj Mahal, released by Columbia Records in 1982. I have no idea if the producers actually compiled "the best of" the artist once known as HENRY ST. CLAIR FREDERICKS--considering that he has over 30 albums to his name (and had more than 15 at the time that Best of was released), it's possible that it gets better. But the album gives a good feel for what Taj (we're on a first-alias basis) was doing in the late '60s and early '70s, which is in fact so absolutely freaking fantastic that it's all too easy to take their word for it, because if it got any better it would probably be illegal, or simply whisked up to heaven in a fiery blues chariot with ELIJAH--lucky!

What we find on that album is a beautiful combination of traditional acoustic blues and tasteful forays into electric blues, but with none of the horrific guitar heroics that you see on the circuit today. That slick and sleazy guitar-driven blues that should be relegated to porn where it belongs? None of that.

Instead, he's got simple, good-humored (and yes, sometimes raunchy, but never ridiculous) songs like "Fishin' Blues" that are more about the story and the vocal than the guitar accompaniment. More complicated arrangements on songs like his treatment of "Johnny Too Bad" foreshadow his predilection for modern West African pop music, but they're still rooted firmly in the blues, and tell stories as such. "Leaving Trunk" and "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" up the ante with a bigger band, more vocal sassafras, some teeth-grittin' harmonica parts and even a splash of horns here and there.

For me, though, the defining moment on the compilation has always been "Cakewalk Into Town," a goofy little number dominated by a tuba and Taj, plus some carefree hand-clapping and whistling to accompany his story about how he got the blues so bad one time, it put his face in a permanent frown ... but now he's feelin' so much better he could cakewalk into town! The song is so damned simple, but it's got everything it needs--STEALIN' CHICKENS FROM THE RICH FOLK, and Taj's big, gravelly, smiling voice singing 'bout waking up feeling so good that he lay back down in bed for a morning cuddle sesh.

So here I am, writing about one of my favorite songs on the planet that consists of nothing but a guy and a tuba. When I heard he'd be playing the Catalyst a couple Fridays ago with only a trio, I thought we were all in for a throwback to a better era of the blues revival. Instead, the show felt like it was steered by some AHAB from the Delta who caught his whale decades ago, but went poking around the oeuvres of ALI FARKA TOURE and TOMMY CASTRO looking for something to keep people dancing and having fun, seemingly unaware that if he'd just click his heels together three times and play 'em like he used to, all would be good. I mean c'mon, it's not like I'm asking KEITH RICHARDS to play the three-note riff to "Satisfaction" for the three-trillionth time. I just want Taj to play the old, simple stuff, not on a hollow-body electric with weirdly bright filtration, but on a regular old acoustic guitar.

So it's a bitter irony that this Taj Mahal Trio show paled in comparison to the last time I saw him, when he played with a huge band, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Oakleys. Because while neither show had any of the acoustic satisfaction I yearned for, at least with his big band he could really get things cookin'. Tommy Castro would've been proud.

Friends That Play Together, Stay Together

MATTHEW EMBRY and ELI SALZMAN will sing play together on Sept. 18 at 120 Union. Both of these local troubadours have a bunch of new material, so snap out of that deep, dark depression and make happy stuff with the friends. Show starts at 10pm.

Mike Connor

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From the September 15-22, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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