Blues Bytes


July 2015

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Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
The Natch'l Blues
Sony Music

Taj Mahal

Few blues fans may realize it some 48 years down the road, but in 1967 and 1968, Taj Mahal set the blues world on its ear with a pair of releases that defined him as one of the major figures in modern blues. Not only did he play a major role in reviving and preserving the country blues traditions, he also revitalized it by updating it for a younger blues audience, who suddenly found themselves digging through record stores not for the latest Beatles or Stones albums, but for vintage recordings of pre-war blues artists whose work Mahal presented to them for the first time.

Mahal’s self-titled debut release (originally on Columbia Records, now Sony Music) sounds as fresh today as it did in 1967, with compelling reworkings of eight classic blues tunes….well, they’re classics now thanks, in part, to his interpretations. For example, Mahal’s electrified reading of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” was so top notch that Duane Allman virtually copied the guitar intro from Jesse Ed Davis when the Allman Brothers played it, and greatly influenced the guitarist to begin playing slide guitar.

Mahal’s version of Sleepy John Estes’ “Leaving Trunk” is one of his most recognizable songs., and he and his cohorts turned Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” into a swinging rocker. The second of three Estes cover tunes, “Everybody’s Got To Change Sometime,” is taken at a break-neck pace, and the Tennesee blues man’s “Diving Duck Blues” gets a blues-rock makeover.

Their version of “Dust My Broom” percolates with a lively exuberance and sounds like a new song, belying the song’s origins some 30 to 40 years before. Mahal only wrote two of the eight tunes for his debut: “EZ Rider” is a rocking blues amalgam of classic lyrics, and he amends a blues classic in “The Celebrated Walkin’ Blues,” a fresh and lively reading which features only his slide guitar and harp with Ry Cooder’s mandolin.

Backing Mahal on these tracks were Davis, Cooder, and Bill Boatman (guitars), Gary Gilmore (bass), and Sanford Konikoff and Charles Blackwell (drums). Davis, Gilmore, and Blackwell would also back Mahal on his next release in 1968, The Natch’l Blues. This second album retained some of the stripped-down qualities of Mahal’s debut, but also ventured into new territory. Part of this is due to the presence of the keyboards of Al Kooper, which gives the album an added dimension, such as the upbeat opener, “Good Morning Miss Brown,” penned by Mahal.

Taj MahalAnother difference in the albums is that Mahal wrote the majority of songs for The Natch’l Blues. “Corrina,” co-written with Davis is a gentle and beautiful country blues that sounds like a vintage tune, the funky “Going Up To The Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue” is as funky as can be, and “The Cuckoo” is one of his most beloved songs. Mahal adopted Yank Rachell’s “She Caught The Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride,” and it’s one of the album’s standout tracks with its irresistible rhythm.

The most noticeable difference between the two albums is the final two tracks of the original album. On those two tracks, William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til Your Well Runs Dry)” and Homer Banks’ “Ain’t That A Lot of Love,” Mahal moves into southern soul territory, which is perfectly fine because he absolutely nails it. His reading of the Bell classic is amazing in its emotional depth, sounding for all the world like it was recorded at Stax Records during the label’s heyday. The latter tune borrows the bassline from Spencer Davis’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and Mahal channels Otis Redding in his vocal.

The Natch’l Blues was reissued in 2000, with three bonus tracks: a faster version of “The Cuckoo,” the slow blues “New Stranger Blues,” and a cool instrumental, “Things Are Gonna Work Out Fine,” that showcases Davis on guitar and Mahal on harp.

Still active, Taj Mahal has expanded his musical horizons to explore reggae and Caribbean music, jazz, R&B, gospel, West African, Latin, and Hawaiian music over his long career. However, his roots still run deepest in the blues, the music he first fell in love with. Taj Mahal and The Natch’l Blues are still as vital and fresh as they were when they were initially released and captivated and helped create a whole new audience of blues fans. They’re both still essential listening nearly 50 years later.

--- Graham Clarke
Read Graham's blog


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