During his show at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre on Thursday night, Taj Mahal recalled that the older-generation bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins said in 1967, “Y’all think you got the blues now, you wait ‘til what’s gonna happen in the future.” Taj then quipped, “He was not wrong.”
Taj should know. As it turns out, Hopkins said this in the year that Taj Mahal recorded his first solo blues album, which was followed by many more, including his masterpiece The Natch’l Blues the following year. And while Taj eventually expanded into a world music direction, he is, at his core, a bluesman — certainly one of the finest of his generation.
Taj’s concert, with support from fellow trio members Billy Rich on bass guitar and Kester Smith on drums, “put the blues on the front end, ‘cause everybody wants to know, ‘Has he still got it?’” Well, he certainly does, as evidenced by his electrified opening songs filled with tasty guitar, plus an animated, sexy delivery that resonated with the “well-heeled audience” at the Lobero, some of whom danced in the aisles.
Speaking of sexy, many of the lyrics in the opening songs involved some sort of playful reference to carnal desire. For example, in the slow blues “Annie Mae,” he sang, “Annie Mae, you know I love your mama, your little sister, your cousin, your auntie, and your big legged grandma, too,” explaining that he was referring to the “first generation of grandmas that wore tight jeans and miniskirts.” After one song, Taj joked that, “Sometimes I get so hot, my pants start sticking to me.” When a woman in the audience then said, “Gorgeous, I don’t care how old you are,” the 69-year-old Taj simply retorted that, “I do know my equipment’s working.”
His bluesy opening songs were followed by a lighter, acoustic collection kicked off by the bouncy “Fishin’ Blues,” which he introduced by saying he “wouldn’t have got here if it wasn’t for this song.” This was followed by “Corinna” from the aforementioned The Natch’l Blues, which he accurately described by saying, “Country blues love songs don’t get no prettier than this.”
After “Queen Bee,” Taj made a point that it is the 100th anniversary of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson’s birth, describing the first part of the next song, “Good Morning, Miss Brown,” as “straight Robert Johnson.”
Next came the hilariously named “Mississippi Big Butt Blues,” after which Taj stretched out beyond the blues, noting in his intro to the song “Zanzibar” that there are “6,800 languages spoken on planet Earth, and music is the only one that everybody understands.” This song featured an interesting repeating guitar figure that eventually was joined by Taj’s singing.
Although Taj mostly played guitar, for “Blues With a Feeling” he played keyboard, including piano and some organ sounds. He also played banjo for two songs, joking that “this instrument used to run the bourgeoisie out of the audience,” and that “he’s got a banjo and he knows how to use it.” This included the impressive, rapid banjo instrumental “Roscoe’s Mule.”
For an encore, Taj played “Blues Is Alright” with a spirited call and response with the audience, which by this point was all dancing along. He ended with the sweet song “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes.”
It is a testament to Taj’s talent and dedication that he keeps the blues fresh after 40-plus years on the road. The blues are indeed alright, especially in the hands of Taj Mahal.
Used to Be Down
Call My Baby
Blues With a Feeling
Good Morning Miss Brown
Mississippi Big Butt Blues
Blues Is Alright
Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.