Further Still: Taj Mahal

posted by Tom on June 14, 2012 at 8:44 pm
in , , , , , ,

Lists like this one can seem somewhat arbitrary. Surveying the path of an artist as prolific as the bluesman Taj Mahal, is it even possible to pin down a single defining moment? Is it more effective to explore a handful of titles? I tended to seek out the releases that had the best chance to enchant the uninitiated, but in many (many) cases, there were several great contenders, no one clear winner.

Mahal’s discography is particularly interesting, because as often happened in the late ‘60s, he recorded several significant (some would say groundbreaking) titles within a short span. His laconic, often lighthearted take on the blues was infectious from the very beginning, throughout his self-titled debut. The “character” he put into his phrasing and inflection grew rapidly, and by the time he recorded his second album, The Natch’l Blues (1000 Recordings, pg. 760), he was spinning wide-eyed stories one irreverent verse at a time, and reaching into corners of then-neglected American music to do it.

He didn’t slow down, either: The electric Giant Step, released in 1969, trawls between scruffy re-imaginings of rock (“Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”) to picturesque, vaguely psychedelic acoustic blues (Leadbelly’s “Keep Your Hands Off Her”). It’s easy to hear Taj Mahal’s growth on these records – he’s evolving quickly but in stepwise fashion, tackling tricky tempos, becoming more comfortable in the studio. Then comes what qualifies as a jet-fueled leap into the stratosphere: On The Real Thing, recorded live at the Fillmore East in early 1971, he’s doing loose, irreverent renditions of tunes from his catalog, with support from percussion, guitar and a tuba ensemble. In this unusual setting, the lowkey Mahal gets to play multiple instruments, and manages to shine on all of them. There’s a bit more New Orleans high-step in the mix, and lots of grit. That doesn’t mean he’s sacrificed finesse: Check out Mahal’s agile and authoritative fife (!) solo on "Ain't Gwine to Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')." The entire record – and especially the rippling version of "She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride" – presents a sublime summation of a feverish few years of growth. It’s a natural growth that happened often back when recording artists treated recording as a routine activity, and when you hear the quirky, multi-textured roar of the aptly titled The Real Thing, you can’t help noticing it’s been gone for a long time.

Here’s a brief Spotify playlist, perfect for crawfish boil or summer BBQ, surveying key tracks from the albums mentioned above.

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