Joy Within The Blues: Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’ Bring TajMo To New York City

By Roger Weisman Aug 16, 2017 9:02 am PDT

Images by: Jeremy Gordon

Words by: Roger Weisman

TajMo: The Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’ Band :: 8.13.17 :: Central Park SummerStage :: New York City, NY

View Jeremy’s photo gallery below Roger’s review.

“It was you who dreamed this up!” blues legend Taj Mahal exclaimed to the audience in New York’s Central Park on Sunday. The “this” he was talking about was TajMo, the collaborative project between Mahal and guitarist Keb’ Mo’. It was a long awaited pairing of two blues artists who have been inventive and creative forces within the genre for decades. The duo released an album this past May, and are touring behind it through the fall.

It’s almost strange that the collaboration didn’t happen earlier, as both artists’ styles are simultaneously similar and complementary. Throughout their careers both artists have grafted elements of other musical styles onto their material, simultaneously stretching the music’s boundaries while keeping it rooted in tradition. Onstage their guitar styles fit within each other gracefully, with Keb’ Mo’s nimble leads dancing around Taj’s sturdy rhythm picking. At the same time, Keb’s soul-drenched croon could not be further from Mahal’s earthy, rough and tumble, vocal style.

The band set the scene, laying into a deep-pocket groove before Keb’ Mo’ arrived to introduce his co-bandleader. Shuffling onstage with a pair of maracas in hand, Mahal tool his sweet time, doing a little dance and enjoying the musical backdrop before arriving at his stool and breaking into the opening lyrics of “Señor Blues,” the Latin-tinged jazz standard by Horace Silver that Mahal recorded in 1997.

They followed that with “Don’t Leave Me Here,” the opening cut off of their collaborative album. Featuring some tasty guitar soloing by Keb’ Mo’, the lyrics are an ode to the Mississippi Delta. Sung from the point of view of a man “stuck outside of Chicago,” far from home, the lyrics and arrangement highlight the disparities between the rural and urban blues.

That set the tone for the evening. The two men would lead their band through a set that would feature songs from their new album, while digging into their back catalogs, pulling out not a few blues standards. The band, consisting of drummer Marcus Finnie, bassist Stan Sargeant, and keyboardist David M. Rodgers, along with the spartan but effective horn section of Quentin Ware on trumpet, and Dana Robbins on sax, acquitted themselves wonderfully, navigating the stylistic changes with ease. They created a simmering bedrock of sound, melding soul, funk, and world music influences. Taj’s daughters, Deva and Zoë Moon, provided backing vocals with a impassioned gospel flavor.

While the TajMo album has received some criticism for being too slick and overproduced, there was a sense of fun on the stage, and the joy of the men playing together was infectious. Songs that sounded lifeless in the studio were redeemed on the stage. On the album, as well as in concert, however, the finest moments were the more intimate and spare. “Diving Duck Blues,” the Sleepy John Estes song which Mahal had recorded numerous times during his career, was revisited for the album. The recording, featuring only the two men and their guitars, was one of the few tracks not bogged down by overproduction. Live, the gentle interplay between the two was perhaps too subtle for many, particularly those at the back of the venue, but it was the most rewarding moment of the show for those intent to listen.

[Government Cheese | Captured by ArmandBernard]

Other highlights were the new takes on the older songs. The crowd was treated to hearing Taj adding his mischievous growl to Keb’s “Government Cheese,” and Keb’ adding some gutsy guitar work to energetic versions of Mahal classics “She Caught the Katy” and “Leaving Trunk.” More, though, they were having a good time doing it. After playing the early Taj Mahal composition, “Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue,” Keb’ called out, “Let’s play it again!”

Incredibly, the band started the song all over, this time with Keb’ taking a ripping solo. They didn’t care if it looked weird. They were having fun. “Feels good to me!” Keb’ shouted.

They ended their set with “All Around The World” a song from the TajMo album. Though the song was more adult contemporary soul than blues, its up-tempo groove and affirming message provided a fine conclusion and had the crowd moving. Encoring with “Soul,” another new song, the band continued in a similar vein, laying down an infectious rhythm mixing Caribbean and African sounds, intent on keeping the audience dancing. The lyrics, simply naming cities all over the world before the chorus proclaims “We got soul!” had a simple message: One world, one groove. Even if it seemed simplistic, they seemed focused on sending their audience off with a message of togetherness. At the very least they showed that there can be quite a lot of joy within the blues.

[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”607″ gal_title=”20170813 TajMo Gordon”]

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