Taj Mahal is, without a doubt, a blues legend. Sure, some qualify this with the term “modern” as if he’s important to today’s blues, but not the tradition as a whole. But Mahal came around at a vital time for blues music. His 1968 eponymous debut, with its mix of old and new styles of blues, was a revelation in part because it was an outlier. Blues veterans were branching out, in part to keep up with psychedelic movements in rock music, and Mahal’s staunch adherence to tradition – which he would hold his entire career, even if his tradition of blues included African and Carribean sounds, among others – made him a defiant voice, but a welcome and strong one.
Now, 40-plus years after that first album, Legacy Recordings is planning an expansive reissue of “definitive” editions of Mahal’s records. The campaign starts, before any true albums come, with The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973, a two-disc collection of entirely unreleased material – one disc is studio cuts, the second a live set – to show us the early years of his solo career and the tangents he ran down outside of his proper records.
The stuff presented on the first disc, from the studio, doesn’t branch too far from early classic records like Taj Mahal and Giant Steps, but it does bounce around from sound to sound the way those records do. There’s the smooth blues-rock of “Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day”, the dustier stomp of “Yah-Nah Mama Loo” or the swampy Delta feel of “Sweet Mama Janisse”. Each song is catchy and fiery, and this set of cuts is surprisingly consistent. It entertains a more loose jam feel than much of his records, with many of these songs stretching upwards of seven minutes. This can be thrilling. The longest cut, 16-minute plus “You Ain’t No Streetwalker, Honey, But I Do Love the Way You Strut” is a brilliant exercise in blues vamping: each player getting their turn and Mahal wailing each verse to the rafters. It’s most striking, though, for the opening moments that find Mahal scatting out the melody and beat for his fellow musicians and then declaring, “It’s all in there, man, just grab a fucking hold of it.”
That musical instinct is all over these tracks, even if some of the jams – “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and “Shady Grove” in particular – run long enough that you can see why they ended up unreleased. But that idea of feeling music, of the way sound becomes emotion, is all over the second disc, an essential live recording that captures a set from 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
The set starts with Mahal alone, transfixing both audience (then) and listener (now) with an a capella “Runnin’ by the Riverside” and the acoustic blues of “John, Ain’t It Hard”. The most bracing moment, though, comes a minute or so into the live take of “Sweet Mama Janisse” when the band kicks in with a tight, thumping foundation for Mahal’s commanding singing voice. The group knocks out classic versions of “Diving Duck Blues”, “Checkin’ Up on My Baby” and “Oh Susannah”, among others. It’s a set that runs 20 minutes shorter than the first disc of studio cuts but feels infinitely more revealing and, in some ways, satisfying. The applause here is contained but also, somehow, feels stunned, as if they’re unsure of what to make of all the pure, sweating energy coming off the stage at them. During the set, Mahal presents himself as both storyteller – setting up, say, “Sweet Mama Janisse” – and singer, meshing the two traditions that weave through blues music beautifully in between songs that manage, despite his interstitial storytelling, to speak for themselves.
If now is the time to celebrate Taj Mahal’s legacy – as if we shouldn’t have (and didn’t) started already – The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 is a great place to begin. The stuff here may not always measure up to his most classic material, but the studio disc offers more than a few gems, and moments that reveal Mahal’s commanding presence as a band leader, while the Royal Albert Hall show is an absolute knock out. For a man so dedicated to honoring the blues, the sounds of that night – and some of the ones in the studio here – honor it in the best way possible, by playing it tight and, ever so slightly, pushing it forward.
- "Checking Up on My Baby" Soundcloud