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Taj Mahal’s McCain concert successful if not exciting

By Gary Clift

It was difficult to get a fix on the size of the McCain Auditorium audience last Thursday night. A large portion of the crowd arrived after Taj Mahal’s “World Blues” concert had begun, and some elements of that crowd never finally lit anywhere. For them the show was casual. As befit the occasion.

Mahal is an affable blues musician whose six-decade career has demonstrated his devotion to the music and yet his ability to make use of new influences. “Country blues,” they used to call his music. But that doesn’t mean bending tones and Nudie suits. Mahal’s trio plays conventionally-structured songs that aren’t about getting ready to throw yourself into the river. Instead, he’s going fishing.

A lot has been made of his use of new musical voices. He has recorded and performed with tuba players, after all. And we heard him play several acoustic-electric guitars, a resonator, a banjo (for “Fishing Blues”), and a ukulele. A Kurzweil keyboard was set up on stage, but apparently the spirit to play it didn’t move him.

Mahal himself plays and sings very well, and he gave his set the air of improvisation that often distinguishes blues performances. His back-up band, in contrast, worked on a theory of profound restraint. Billy Rich, a native of Omaha who played bass a while with Buddy Miles, and Kester Smith are long-time Mahal side-men.

The trio’s set can be divided roughly into halves, with the first half mostly twelve-bar blues songs and the second half, which involved most of the instrument swapping by Mahal, being four-line stuff, country/country blues. Generally speaking the tempos were moderate and the lyrics capable of being humorous.

It was as if Mahal was performing in our living room. There were no theatrics. The only dynamic shifts were musical and modest. And the material didn’t seem to be arranged to reach a climax of any sort. Maybe the audience members who were ambling around were just headed out to the kitchen for a glass of water.

It might be easy to undervalue what Mahal was doing with sound and tone. Certainly the music was never dull. The forms might repeat, and the tempo, while very steady, didn’t excite—sometimes references to Elmore James and Bo Diddley suggested turns the music didn’t finally embrace. But the material itself was sharp, the rhythm playing was precise, and the energetic band leader had an interesting idea or two to help develop every song.

Late in the trio’s set, Mahal invited his opening acts to return to the stage for a couple of numbers. Guitarist-vocalist-dancer-lecturer Vusi Mahlasela was up to sing on a couple of late songs, playing on one. And Mahal’s daughter Deva, possessor of a lovely voice and a lovely stage personality, was up for a couple, too, during one of which her Nord keyboard-playing partner Stephanie Brown also performed.

Mahlasela, a South African, performed in English and Zulu. Essentially a folk artist, his bell-tone guitar sometimes had a madrigal sound, and his voice was breathy with overtones but still managed to be percussive, especially in his upper range. The time will come when South African artists will not feel they must talk about their country’s late twentieth-century history when they perform, and then we’ll get a song or two more a set out of them. Apparently that time is not yet here, though.

Deva Mahal and Stephanie Brown, playing as Fredericks Brown (Mahal’s off-stage last-name is Fredericks) opened the show. Their set contained most of the really new music for the evening, and they have impressive stage presence. Brown plays a booming keyboard bass with her left hand while accompanying Deva with the Nord’s Hammond and Wurlitzer sounds. While their material is rich, I wished it was a little less unhappy in occasion and tone. Otherwise, Fredericks Brown’s performance was a great success.

And so was the show in total, despite the ambling crowd members and largely because of Taj Mahal’s ambling musical style. Fans of this show might want to get their tickets for the May 13 Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Del McCoury concert, and maybe for Brian Setzer’s December 11 Christmas show.

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