Lord have mercy! September has already been an extreme hotbed for wonderful music, but nothing compares to classic blues. However, last week a legend graced the city and proved to the world that he still got it. Taj Mahal, the blues idol and talent of unique power unveiled his very best with his trio, Kester Smith and Bill Rich, at the Blue Note to the enjoyment of old and new fans alike. (Oh, and the man was around all week, to top it off). Listeners were introduced back to the blues that still holds sway to the American songbook from a deep and unwavering place of passion.
Walking to the Blue Note on a cool night is the best way to get into the mood. For listeners eager for the summer heat to disappear, it was a great escape. Rule of thumb, if seated at a random table, stage left, at the packed Blue Note, find the Australians and befriend them immediately. They will become the life of the party and make the whole night fun. It was surprising to hear that many of the guests that night, a diverse bunch to note, were simply in the mood for music and had no clue who Taj Mahal was. Well, they picked the perfect night for it, as they would all soon learn. On top of that, the venue was bustling with loud conversation that made even the simplest drink order hard to manage. However, ordering a Bulleit Rye helps to settle the mind and prepare for the blues to come.
After admiring the various instruments on stage, the announcements finally began and cheers followed. From the green room upstairs, came the elderly Taj Mahal lumbering down the stairs with Kester and Bill in tow. The man was a spitting image of his signature style with his fedora and hula shirt. His white beard and glimmering earrings added onto his already hip persona as he smiled to the audience as he passed by. Despite his strenuous effort to climb on the stage, he finally made his way to his seat and strapped on his guitar. With his voice barely legible and scratchy, he surprised many with his humorous quips as the audience waited silently. “Well, this is New York at its best!” Chuckles soon followed as the tension was released and then the music began to play.
From the start, with his guitar plucking masterfully, he proved to the room that he has definitely not lost his touch. Even his voice, just moments ago a mere whisper, was unleashed in full force and power with sublime clarity. Alongside Bill’s slap-bass skill, the raw and timeless emotion on Taj’s face was just what was needed for a full grasp of the blues at hand. He was showing and playing all the feelings of the genre. His youth came sprouting back as he bounced happily in his seat to the tunes from his guitar. For the first couple of songs, a rockabilly-blues theme was in control as Kester leisurely kept the beat alive. The man looked extremely comfortable up there.
Probably the highlight of the night was when Taj and crew began to play a classic, Queen Bee, which received many a cheer of praise. The song was perfect and gave the vibe of the night a captivating longevity. A series of growls were heard in Taj’s voice as he began to honor to the original blues in his set. All the while, fans were tapping their feet and dancing in their seats in bluesy bliss. Every now and then, Taj would send a childlike grin out to the audience in the middle of a song that gave his optimistic joy of playing a lovely touch. As the set came to a close, his voice began to turn back into the raspy feel of his spoken word. However, with the blues backing, it worked beautifully.
Taj only played a few songs on his organ, it was quite a hassle to walk around the small stage around his other instruments. Fans were grateful for the organ focussed songs, because yet again, Mr. Mahal cut loose and represented his national treasure status with ideal instrumentation. Each member of the trio had their talent as musicians truly shine from start to finish, they never showed signs of letting up. Music was the best medicine here for all involved. Taj Mahal’s set ended with him taking the helm with his ukulele to give listeners a fond version of folksy-blues. With a bow with his band mates and a loud standing ovation from the audience, the men slowly wandered back up to the green room with smiles on their faces.
Taj Mahal is one of those one of a kind musical staples that stay with listeners for generations to come. His music both resonates with current listeners and can equally be passed on to the next group of artists all the way through. Many will be inspired from his vast works. For fans of the blues and just plain good music, discover or rediscover the greatness of Taj Mahal.