The wacky confounding of geographies in the Egyptian Theatre venue, transposing Asia and Africa, perfectly fits Taj Mahal—the supremely entertaining inventor of blues—in crossing geographical and cultural boundaries. It was 40 years ago at The Fillmore that he implored his audience to respond to "Ain't Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')" by "putting a little shake in your shaker."
Expect to be exhorted in a like fashion during his upcoming Boise concert, a stop on Taj Mahal's national tour celebrating his rich past and showcasing his new album, Maestro, on the Heads Up International label. Maestro has a full roster of guest appearances: Ben Harper, Los Lobos, Angelique Kidjo and Ziggy Marley. But the hefty addition of these younger stars in no way diminishes the spotlight on Taj Mahal. Maestro is a captivating mix of gritty soul music (Otis Redding's "Scratch My Back"), reggae, New Orleans R&B, Afropop and hard-to-categorize originals. Taj Mahal coaxes untapped talents out of those performing with him. Los Lobos sustains an authentic reggae groove, even more than Ziggy Marley's band on "Never Let You Go." Ben Harper demonstrates a newfound vocal ferocity in the duet "Dust Me Down." And the Afropop diva Kidjo sounds more laid back on "Zanzibar" than on her solo albums. As for Taj Mahal, his vocals, guitar and banjo picking are as spirited as ever. An evolution in his singing is evident, pointing toward the urban blues of Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon (whose "Diddy Wah Diddy" triumphantly closes Maestro). And the Memphis blues strain—as filtered through his covers of Otis Redding—continue to "citify" his country blues roots.
This will not be Taj Mahal's first concert in Boise. One of his performances was at the Blues Bouquet years ago when that club featured national blues masters like Robert Cray and Albert Collins. But Taj Mahal did a solo acoustic set then, and this time he will come to Boise with a band, electric and ready to electrify.
Plugged or unplugged, Taj Mahal has brought a unique sensibility to universalizing and globalizing the blues. Starting in the 1960s largely as an acoustic guitar-picking, folk-flavored, country blues artist, he progressively expanded his musical horizons so that his music became an encyclopedic mining of the African and Caribbean roots of the blues. It was, and still is, a brave career path to take given the fact that the overwhelming rock fan base knows blues mainly as transfigured, electric Chicago blues. The Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton all owe in their stinging electric guitar riffs an extraordinary debt to African American Chicago bluesmen like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush.
While acknowledging the richness of that Chicago blues heritage, Taj Mahal drew on his own Caribbean heritage and his sense that most Caribbeans share African roots, and dissolved the popular stereotypes about the blues perpetuated by both rock stars and fans.
In spite of his "just plain folks" persona on stage, Taj Mahal graduated Amherst College with an understanding of how folk music traditions constantly evolve globally. You can hear the sophisticated and jovial fruits of his definition of the blues on a single disc, The Best of Taj Mahal on Columbia/Legacy—the best introduction to the gist of Taj Mahal's music available. More than simply stylistically eclectic, he finds both the joy and the anguish of the blues in just about any tune. Often these emotional polarities vie within a single performance—with joy almost always winning out by the time the final note resounds. No song better encapsulates this mining of the emotional spectrum of the blues than Taj Mahal's performance of "Cakewalk into Town" as he memorably sings: "Got the blues so bad / it turned into a permanent frown. / Now I'm feelin' so much better / I can cakewalk into town."
An additional taste of the flavor of how Taj Mahal performs circa 2008 can be found in another noteworthy compilation, Blues With a Feeling: The Very Best of Taj Mahal (RCA). It showcases his growing appreciation of urban, emotionally urgent blues and reveals the Otis Redding soul music influence. One additional CD anthology worthy of attentive listening is the two-disc set, The Essential Taj Mahal. Of particular note on that collection is a selection setting the poetry of Langston Hughes to blues.
It is rare for a music journalist to be candid about the origin of an assignment, but let me close with an anecdote suggesting yet another reason to attend Taj Mahal's upcoming show. My venerable editor gave me the delicious option of writing a short piece or an extended feature. I told her that I'd check to see how many music fans from ages 15 to 30 knew who Taj Mahal was. If that audience didn't know his charms, I'd spring for a long feature. Phones calls to sales associates at all of Boise's "big box" stores carrying blues CDs resulted in the following identical responses to my query as to whether they stocked The Essential Taj Mahal: "How do you spell Taj Mahal?" And then, "What kind of music is it?"
For one night, the one and only Taj Mahal will be at the Egyptian Theatre to shout the blues with international depth and breadth, an act for all ages, for the ages.
Friday, Oct. 17, 8 p.m., $35 and $37 in advance. The Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St. For tickets, call the Egyptian box office at 208-387-1273. For more information, visit egyptiantheatre.net.