13 June 2005
Taj Mahal is a phenomenal player and singer.This time he was playing with his trio, with Bill Rich on 5 string bass and Kester Smith on drums. Bill Rich has played with Taj since 1971, and appeared on several of my all-time favourite abums – Taj’s The Real Thing (aka the “tuba album” by fans), John McLaughlin’s Devotion, Paul Butterfield Better Days It All Comes Back, Geoff Muldaur The Secret Handshake and so on.
There were some great moments, from the three blistering blues at the start where he really shook his stuff through the better known tracks from his albums (it was kind of greatest hits). A sublime instrumental, Zanzibar, stood out. The benefit of a trio was that Taj played guitar all night (plus brief interludes on piano and banjo). But the limitations of a trio also were apparent in that the drums and bass got a bit relentless. Last time I saw him in Paris he was with a bigger band (extra guitar, keyboards, a horn player) so on some numbers he became the ‘Soul Taj’ put down his guitar and sang. Last night he couldn’t do that. The Paris show was at Disneyland, Paris in Billy Bob’s Bar and was part of a Disney jazz festival. I knew nothing about it until walking past the bar with the kids and I saw the sign, “Taj Mahal. Tonight. 8pm. Free admission.” That was at 7 pm, and I was in there at 8. Taj for the price of a beer, except that it was so packed that I never got to buy the beer.
The current show would be improved if he sent off the drummer and bassist for a 15 minute tea break in the middle. On stuff like Paint My Mailbox Blue, Fishin’ Blues and Corrina I thought they got in the way and he’d have done better solo. As it was I got a bit tired of the rhythm section in the last third of the show. If they’d had a break, I’d’ve been glad to have them back. He’s been playing with the rhythm section for a long time, with the bassist for 30 odd years, but I didn’t notice any magic empathy. Bill Rich has been a favourite bass player for years, but I didn’t like the sound he got last night. Too blurry. Maybe it was perfect at the back with the mixing desk, but it was blurry in Row E. It’s a great hall for sound and when I saw Zawinul there last year the bassist got a crunchy sound like Jaco Pastorius at his peak, and it’s the home of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, so it wasn’t the acoustics. But he’s an all time great player, so I’ll put it down to bad mixing. On which, the vocal mic wasn’t fantastic in balance either.
Taj is one of the great showmen, a fabulous entertainer and an incredible guitar player and singer. When he went for straight out raucous powerful blues at the start it reminded me of seeing the classic blues greats in the 60s – Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. He joked about it. Then his own brand of more intricate melodic songs took over. Not the best I’ve seen him, but nevertheless he’s one of those people you just have to see more than once. Taj deserves a prize for best playout music – as we left, Randy Newman’s “Let’s Drop The Big One” resounded round the hall.
The fluid opening set from Maliian guitarist / singer Idrissa Soumaro stood up very well in contrast. All a bit softer. Lovely interplay between Idrissa’s acoustic guitar and the electrified acoustic lead guitarist, plus a flute player who made them sound like an African Jethro Tull. But where Idrissa really scored was the brilliant percussionist, who was playing what looked like a huge gourd, with a loud mic inside, so that every tiny finger scratch and touch boomed round the hall. Such astonishing hands-on percussion work inevitably made a conventional drum set with Taj sound crude in comparison.