Taj Mahal- vocals, harmonica, banjo, National steel guitar, fife; John Hall- electric guitar; John Simon - piano; Howard Johnson - tuba, baritone saxophone, horn arrangements; Bob Stewart - tuba, flugelhorn, trumpet; Joeseph Daly - tuba, valve trombone; Early McIntyre - tuba, bass trombone; Bill Rich - bass; Greg Thomas - drums; Kwasi "Rocky" DziDzournu - Congas
Whether he was recording solo acoustic, fronting a rock band or weaving his trademark National steel guitar around a tuba-dominated blues band, between 1967 and 1971, Taj Mahal created some of the most consistently engaging modern blues music, inspiring countless other musicians of the era. His multi-instrumental abilities and multicultural vision of the blues transcended previous limitations of the genre and he should be credited for playing an enormous role in revitalizing and preserving traditional blues.
Initially honoring the Mississippi Delta blues masters, his music often emphasized his forceful steel guitar playing and hard hitting vocals, recorded in a sparse manner, not unlike the originals. Teaming up with Native American guitarist, Jesse Ed Davis during the late 1960s and forming a band, Taj Mahal's scope broadened and the music become more hard hitting and dynamic -- not to mention amplified!
During the early days of 1971, Taj Mahal began assembling a new group, with the help of the extraordinary tuba player and arranger Howard Johnson, and began achieving a bigger more soulful sound with increasing variety. The band was overloaded with talent, including musician, producer, arranger John Simon at the piano, the guitarist from Janis Joplin's Pearl album, John Hall (who would soon take off with his own band Orleans) and Buddy Miles Express bassist Bill Rich. Drummer Greg Thomas and percussionist Kwasi "Rocky" DziDzournu round out the core unit. However it was Howard Johnson and his fellow tuba and horn playing buddies, Bob Stewart, Joseph Daly and Early McIntyre that largely contributed to this band being so memorable.
The testament until now has been Taj Mahal's most popular album, The Real Thing which captured this unit live on stage during a Fillmore East stand in February of 1971. Presented here is Taj Mahal performing with the same configuration on the third and final night of that run. For those enamored with this all too brief era of Taj Mahal's career, this recording is quite the treat as it contains what are essentially alternate takes of some of Taj Mahal's most vital material. This night is also notable because it was simulcast live on New York City's WPLJ FM as A Night at Fillmore East, part of a new series of live radio broadcasts that were becoming increasingly popular. Elton John's November, 17 1970 performance at A&R Studios, later released in part as his first live album, was the debut broadcast in the series.
The set begins with Taj Mahal informing the audience that the performance is being recorded and going out live on the radio. He and his band waste no time getting down to business, opening with a "Sweet Mama Janisse" that is downright explosive! Starting off deceptively low key, Taj, on National steel guitar, delivers the opening sequence in a soft-spoken manner, before the entire band, especially the tuba section, kicks in hard. This spicy Louisiana-flavored blues is propelled by what is essentially a seven-piece rhythm section consisting of four tubas, bass, drums and congas. Next up is an expanded arrangement of a track initially featured on the Natch'l Blues album, "Going Up To The Country and Paint My Mailbox Blue." This improves on the original in every conceivable way and Johnson's horn arrangements, which are fantastic here, are largely responsible. With Taj playing plenty of great blues harp and this band so fully engaged, this is quite an impressive performance. It's no wonder this song would also be selected for inclusion on The Real Thing album, despite it being previously released.
A wonderful example of this band's sense of timing and melody follows, with their adaptation of Yank Rachell's country blues, "She Caught The Katy (And Left Me A Mule To Ride)." This number has an appeal that is fun, direct and immediate. It is now of course, one of Taj Mahal's career defining songs and this performance makes it easy to understand why that is so. A fine reading of Blind Willie Johnson's "You're Going To Need Somebody On Your Bond" is up next before Taj and the group ease into the country blues of "Ain't Gwine To Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')." Loose and relaxed, and with the tuba section providing extra punch, this provides several members the opportunity to solo, including Taj on fife followed by flugelhorn, baritone sax and trombone solos from the horn section. Guitarist John Hall also gets a solo spot proving himself a superbly tasteful addition capable of playing with all feel and no flash, keeping with the relaxed groove. The relaxed groove continues on Taj Mahal's original "Big Kneed Girl," before the group pulls out all the stops by wrapping up the set with "You Ain't No Streetwalker Mama, Honey But I Sure Do Love The Way You Strut Your Stuff." This is the prime example of Taj and the group's dynamic control, as over the course of this extended jam, the group often plays softly and sparsely, making the louder passages even more exciting and dramatic. Everyone makes a strong contribution, but the standout musician may be pianist John Simon, who has played brilliantly throughout the set. In many ways, he is the glue that helps this unusual configuration jell so well on stage. This number also features more superb blues harp from Taj before it quietly dissolves signaling the end of the set.
The Fillmore East audience has no intention of letting things end here and their enthusiastic response entices Taj and the group back for an encore. Just shy of being complete due to tape stock running out, this features the entire group tackling Sleepy John Estes' "Diving Duck Blues." A song originally recorded for Taj's debut album, this is an altogether more exciting performance, fueled by Johnson's great horn arrangements and standout contributions from Simon and Hall, whose piano and lead guitar work respectively, are both outstanding.
Taj Mahal may have been exploring music from a bygone era, but he was doing it in an increasingly adventurous manner here. Unfortunately, such a phenomenal unit wasn't sustainable for long, but for the all too brief time they were together, they were one of the most intriguing and original groups going in modern blues. Overflowing with talent, this lineup of Taj Mahal's band convey passion, energy and clarity of purpose. Over four decades later -- this unusual configuration still sounds fresh and vibrant. (Bershaw)