Album Reviews


Taj Mahal

Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff

RS: Not Rated

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Taj chose a fine and fitting title for this touching, eclectic and thoroughly excellent new album: at this point in time he is the blues recycler, a young gentleman keeping the old country blues alive for others to enjoy and learn from. And like a true craftsman, Taj takes the style that earlier generations have prepared for him and reshapes it into something new, yet shining with an authentic, lustrous patina of its own. Out of old blues comes new; the circle, thanks to this master musician, remains unbroken. As touching and affecting as is the music inside, the cover photo presents Taj in the perspective he wants. There he is several years ago, a grinning chap still young enough to be wearing his Amherst class ring, standing with the aged, blissfully smiling John Hurt, a good 50 years Taj's senior, at some Newport Folk Fest of the past. I suppose this might be Taj's subtle way of making a point about roots and debts owed: More than once on Recycling the Blues Taj falls into the low hypnotic Avalon Mississippi drawl that was Hurt's trademark. We're reminded, Taj, and are grateful to you both.

The two sides to this disc show the two sides of Taj: The first is a recent live set from Winterland that illustrates how carefully Taj structures his show to build energy and suspense, bringing the audience only so high that it will not be cruelly snapped down when he leaves the stage. That in itself is an indication of the grace of the man. He introduces himself to his customers with short, exorcising blasts of the Bahamian conch shell—a keening moan that gently says hello. Next a little riff on the kalimba, the African thumb piano that makes a sound like wind and light rain playing on giant leaves. These soothing sounds both cool expectation and heighten drama. So when Taj sits down with his 50-year-old National Steel and lays into the 12-bar "Bound to Love Me" it's a thrilling release: "My baby loves me some, puts her arms around me like a circle round the sun."

The show continues with "Ricochet," a banjo reel played in Taj's distinct stompin' and shamblin' style. He gets the crowd into fever with a sweaty, call-response field holler, "Rise up Children Shake the Devil out Your Soul," and then finishes them off with his gentle, tender, loving and supremely happy version of "Corinna," everybody's favorite Taj standard. Towards the end his gentle plea turns into hoarse supplication, and that's how he bows out, with the people yelling for more. He gives 'em a little more conch music, just to say good night.

The second side consists of a cycle of four songs that are the most ambitious undertaking since he assembled the incredible nine-man band (that included a section of four tubas led by jazz great Howard Johnson) for his famous Fillmore recordings. The only instrumentation is Taj's guitar and upright bass (which he calls "John Henry's fiddle"), Howard Johnson's single tuba, handclaps and the perfectly blowzy vocalisms of the incredibly sultry Pointer Sisters. The songs are brilliantly performed with an authenticity and feeling that is nothing short of amazing; each sounds like a hoary traditional blues passed from man to man through six generations—yet Taj wrote every tune himself. "Cakewalk into Town" is just guitar and tuba, a syncopated shuffler, Taj's tough taste for root raw funk. The Pointer Sisters provide perfect, slightly crazed counterpoint backup to his gritty-tonsilled blues.

But the best song on the album is "Texas Woman Blues," a trick with a subtle sexy Forties feel and the Pointers' gorgeous, suspended doodahs: Taj wants to get to that San Antonio lady so bad that you can taste his want, and it is such a gas! The side ends with a long guitar piece, "Gitano Negro," that is in the same mystery-laden vein as "Black Spirit Boogie" on his last LP, Happy To Be Just Like I Am.

In the end there's not much to say except what a good record this is, as usual for Taj. It's like Bill Graham said to that audience at Winterland: "If you didn't come here with a friend, you have one on the stage now, Mr. Taj Mahal." (RS 122)


(Posted: Nov 23, 1972)


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