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 consistently engaging modern blues music, inspiring countless other musicians of the era. His multi-instrumental abilities and multi-cultural 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 became 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/arranger Howard Johnson, and began achieving a bigger, more soulful sound with increasing variety. The band was overloaded with phenomenal 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 rounded 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 has been Taj Mahal's most successful album, The Real Thing which captured this unit live on stage at Fillmore East on March 13, 1971.
Here is Taj Mahal and the same incredible unit recorded on the same stage one month earlier, when they served as openers for electric Hot Tuna. It was the group's fourth performance ever after being together only two weeks. This Fillmore East run, which began with two shows on January 15, 1971 and concluded with another two the following night, would be the group's New York City debut. Presented here is a phenomenal quality recording of Taj Mahal's final set of that run, the late show from January 16th.
The set begins with Taj Mahal on stage alone. He begins by engaging the audience with an improvised a cappella ditty that initially only contains the words "I'm So Tired," with his own grunting and clapping establishing a rhythm. This continues for several minutes at which point he resolves the improvisation with the concluding line "but the music makes me feel so good!" Following this, Taj straps on his 5-string banjo for the lovely original instrumental "Tom & Sally Drake." This solo sequence concludes with Taj playing his trademark National steel guitar on a rousing version of "Good Morning Miss Brown," a highlight of his 1968 Natch'll Blues album.
From here on out, the new band joins in and they perform a half-dozen numbers together, including four that would be recorded for The Real Thing album the following month, plus a few new arrangements of songs featured on previous albums. This begins with the group easing 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 serves as an extended warm-up exercise for the group. Several members take impressive solos, 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 of this nearly 16-minute piece.
In comparison, the "Sweet Mama Janisse" that follows is downright explosive! Starting off deceptively low key, Taj, now 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 is a seriously cooking Louisiana-flavored blues propelled by what is essentially a seven-piece rhythm section consisting of four tubas, bass, drums & congas.
Next up is a new, expanded arrangement of another track initially featured on the Natch'll 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, it's 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.
"Further On Down The Road" is another older number (from the Giant Steps album) that is taken to another level with these great musicians. It also provides another opportunity to enjoy Taj on fife, before the group engages in a set closing jam on "You Ain't No Streetwalker Mama, 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 doesn't want the set to end and this is not mere speculation, as they end up calling Taj and the group back out for not one, but two encores! The first 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 are both outstanding. The group brings out the best in Taj, who delivers his most infectious vocal of the evening.
Following this the group exits the stage again, only to be called back for another encore, a rarely experienced thing for any opening act at the Fillmores. For this final number, Taj returns with the core band, minus the horns, for a romp through "Corinna," originally recorded for the Natch'll Blues album three years prior. As expected, it's another fine example of the excellence of these musicians, who all favor tasteful playing over flashiness.
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 terms of modern blues. Overflowing with talent, this lineup of Taj Mahal's band conveys passion, energy and clarity of purpose and, well over four decades later, this unusual configuration still sounds fresh and vibrant.
-Written by Alan Bershaw