With over 50 albums, seven Grammy awards and 80 years of combined musical experience between them, two masters of contemporary Americana, world music and blues—Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’—combined forces this year to bring the fruits of their experience and collaboration to world stages, including Chico’s Laxson Auditorium last Thursday (June 22).
After a short and sweet intro set by Black Pacific, a trio of Mahal’s children, the Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’ Band kicked off with a hyperkinetic bass line building to bluesy horns that led to a first taste of Mahal’s signature vocal style. What followed was a band-showcasing instrumental section featuring trumpet crescendo, boogie-woogie piano, wailing saxophone and some tasty Keb’ Mo’ guitar. This is music that’s meant to get you out of your seat and onto the dance floor, and despite the lack of such in Laxson, a few true believers managed to create their own dance space on the peripheral aisle.
Seated for most of the show, the 75-year-old Mahal showcased deep lung power on harmonica and vocals for “Don’t Leave Me Here.” He traded lead vocals with Keb’ Mo’, who was also in fine form and unleashed stinging flurries of Chicago blues notes from his guitar.
The soulful declaration of identity from the bluemen’s new album, TajMo (released in May), “That’s Who I Am,” highlighted the blues in rhythm and blues, but by stacking the musical deck with rhythmic interactions of horn section, harmonica and vocals, the mood projected was one of strength, intent and purpose—presenting a living example and definition of genuine soul music.
A rendition of Sleepy John Estes’ classic “Diving Duck Blues,” which Mahal first recorded for his eponymous 1968 debut album, featured both bluesmen on resonator guitars for an intimate and crowd-pleasing exploration of country blues that made use of Laxson’s acoustic properties to allow the nuances of the quiet playing to ring through the hall.
Another highlight came in Mahal’s rendition of the exquisitely melodic Carole King/Gerry Goffin song “Take a Giant Step.” Mahal obviously enjoyed breaking the news that he didn’t actually write that title song of his breakthrough 1969 album. He was happy to pass along credit for the composition of the song, which deftly weaves Brill Building pop with a country blues flavor perfectly suited to Mahal’s sensibility and style.
After pausing to introduce the members of the Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’ Band, which included Mahal’s two daughters from Black Pacific singing background vocals, the music shifted into a blues-funk mode that coaxed a few more irrepressible souls out of their seats to join the sideline dancers.
The shoulder-shimmying rhythm of Mahal original “She Caught the Katy” increased the urge to dance; so perhaps to ease the frustration, the next number, “Om Sweet Om” from the new album, slowed things to a more sedate mode, showcasing Keb’ Mo’s voice and guitar over a slow ode to peaceful contemplation.
Alternating favorites from Mahal’s extensive songbook—such as the classic “Going up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue,” with its mid-tempo groove and exuberant vocal, and the gospel fervency of new songs, including the band’s “All Around the World”—kept the audience rapt throughout the nearly two-hour concert, oscillating pleasantly between the reflective reverence and rowdy, whooping reveling that are the unifying polar extremes of the blues spectrum.
The solid two minutes of standing-ovation applause at the close of the show gave evidence that, for this audience, a dose of the blues succeeded at delivering cathartic celebration.
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