Taj Mahal Trio @ MusikFest Café At Steel Stacks

BETHLEHEM, PA—The Taj Mahal Trio cakewalked into town on a hot July night and got the locals all revved up with pure blues fervor. Hey, we may not have Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Rev. Gary Davis, Son House or Robert Johnson alive anymore but we damn sure got Taj Mahal and that ain’t exactly just whistlin’ Dixie. The man is a National Treasure. I strongly urge every reader to go listen to every one of those aforementioned blues legends immediately. Right now, in fact! You can finish reading this review later. And go see Taj Mahal if you want an education about the melting pot of American music, an entertaining soulful humorous (‘cause Taj onstage is a funny man), funky experience that will make your liver quiver. He ain’t yet 70 and he can still kick like an ornery mule.

Actually, truth be told, he’s getting’ a bit ornery himself in his old age. Taj onstage is a joy. Taj offstage is, well, y’see, I ran into him that afternoon as he headed towards his tour bus. I had a picture of us that was taken in a New York City hotel room 30 years ago for a feature I wrote in these pages. I was hoping to visit with him in his dressing room, show him the picture of us both looking so young, tell him of its circumstances, and get a new shot taken. He truly is one of my musical heroes, after all.

So I see him, right? I quickly pull a U-turn turn, gravel flying, outside the beautiful new venue, pull right up to him, and roll down my window. “Hey Taj,” I yell just before he gets on the bus, “Check out this pic of you and me!”

He stops, turns around, takes the picture out of my hand, looks at it, says, “How ‘bout that,” and proceeds back on the bus with my picture. “Whoah,” I yell, “Hold up! I ain’t givin’ it to you!” He scowls, hands it back to me and disappears onto the bus. So much for pleasantries.

Armed only with bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith, Taj is a one-man whirlwind of kaleidoscopic proportions. Like a constantly turning colorful pinwheel, he bounces from Big Joe Turner’s “TV Mama” to his own “Good Morning Miss Brown” (complete with a great story about the feisty lady, now 92) to “Mississippi Big Butt Blues.”

He started on electric guitar, switched to acoustic, then to keyboards and finally to banjo. They were callin’ out for his classic “Corrina” and he didn’t disappoint. I called out for “I’m Gonna Move Up To The Country And Paint My Mailbox Blue” but I before I could properly verbalize my request, he launched into a jam-happy version of “Anna Mae” (about another very feisty lady) and his beloved “Fishin’ Blues.”

His absolutely delicious and totally satisfying “Zanzibar,” in one fell swoop, showed the similarities between American blues guitar and African folk music. Taj has always been about stretching the limits. Plumb the depths of his catalog of about 75 albums and you’ll find Hawaiian, Caribbean, reggae, folk, rock ’n’ roll, blues with tubas, R&B, country and just about any genre under the sun. Born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in Harlem, he grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, came of age musically in the late ‘60s, showing the proper enthusiasm and aptitude as a blues pupil, literally learning at the knee of those who came before him. As things turned out, he has turned into that which he first emulated and we are all the richer for it.

His daughter Devah opened the show with her own band for a solid if unspectacular set of soul-rock, joining her dad for a sweet soulful close at the end of the night.