every song like a man who’s felt the joy of waking up next to the love
of his life—only to see her walk out the door a few minutes later. He
began his career as an echo of legends like Son House and Robert
Johnson. Now he’s the real deal.
In celebration of his 40th year in
professional music, Mahal is making the rounds to smaller venues across
the United States. On Feb. 21, he and his trio parked their rhythm and
twang show at Ithaca’s State Theater, 107 W. State St.. The
contrast of the audience was startling. A sea of silver-topped heads
filled the first several rows while the dreadlocks and Chuck Taylors
danced in the aisles. But it was one of those nights where everybody
swayed along together. By the encore, the evening had evolved from an
intimate sit-down to a midsummer backyard fish fry.
Taj, you’re it: Taj Mahal rehashed his career’s-worth of tunes at Ithaca’s State Theater last month.
Backed by Brian T. Parker on drums and Bill Rich
on bass, Mahal kicked things off with a handful of his more popular
tracks: “Queen Bee,” “Fishin’ Blues” and his 1972 near-hit “Corinna.”
He didn’t seem to mind bringing these tunes out early in the show.
Without a new album to promote, songs from different eras could be
tossed around with no particular recipe in mind. The blues are
timeless, after all, so it didn’t seem to matter.
That being said, Mahal shined brighter
at some points than at others. “Corinna” may be recognizable, but it’s
not a soul rouser. So, a half-hour in, he slid behind the keyboard for
some boogie-woogie call-and-response. “Everybody say, ‘Yeah!’” he
Everybody said yeah, all right, but the
enthusiasm wasn’t enough to compensate for Mahal’s pedestrian organ
playing. Punching away mainly with his right hand, he leaned on Rich’s
trotting bass lines to get through Little Walter’s “Blues With a
Feeling,” a song dedicated to “women with a critical mass in the
backfield.” Thick-set gals constitute a favorite theme for the
Springfield, Mass., native: “Big Boned Women Are Back in Style” drew a
nice confetti of whistles and hoots, too.
The party really got going, though, when
Mahal picked up the electric guitar for a mean bayou blues jam. The
sticky lust of “Annie Mae” showed that the old man still has a little
panty-dropping power left in the tank. Jerking his hips to Parker’s
thumping bass drum, he clinched his eyes shut and remembered every
curve of her body with the fervor of a tomcat half his age.
To Mahal, the blues mean more than just sex. He happily threw away dirty little thoughts for a little audience participation. Ay-yai-yai-yos bounced
from floor to balcony during the bouncy “Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” and a
10-minute instrumental free flow encouraged a rhythmic clap from pretty
much everyone in the house.
All that back and forth makes for a
memorable show, but it felt like it was ripped from the pages of the
official Taj Mahal tour script. Between songs he said, “All that time
that you’ve been watching me, I’ve really been watching you,” and those
vaudeville-style one-liners popped up frequently throughout the night.
People laughed, but they served as reminders that this guy has been
doing the same thing since the Nixon administration.
“Slow Drive” closed the main set with a
widespread sway-along. It was the perfect setup for the encore, “Lovin’
In My Baby’s Eyes.” The acoustic picker, more Bob Dylan than Muddy
Waters, encouraged arms to reach around shoulders with the prospect of
That’s how it all ended, which is kind
of a shame. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, the collection of
pleasure and heartache was a calculated greatest hits album on repeat
for the hundredth time. Taj Mahal throws one hell of a party. Too bad
it’s one he’s thrown many times before.