My brother and I walk into a sea of Wisconsin blues fanatics. These people are hardcore, dude: everyone, from the grey-ponytailed men and women whirling around and spilling my beer, to the Edgar Winter lookalike ghoul up front, to the college-kid rahrahs in the baseball caps and tattoos, is riveted to the Cadillac Joe Band.
This smooth-rockin’ organ trio is notable for three things, which I will now list: A) The talented young jazzabilly guitar player, who pulls off a couple of metal riffs in the middle of his boogified solos; B) the grey-ponytailed organist/singer, who dedicates a song to his wife called “Funky Grandma”, I shit you not; and C) The Most Bored-Looking Drummer in the Entire World. Come on, fella, you’re making money playing music. Lighten the hell up. Other than these three things, I’m not sure there’s much to them yet, but with a new attitude from the drummer (or a new drummer) and some luck, you might get to hear their funky sort of bluesy, sort of jazzy sort of thing near you soon. Because they are pretty good.
Yet Taj Mahal is better, without even trying. He’s been around since the late 1960s, but it seems like more, because that’s the way he’s played it; even when he was new and young and fresh, he always played the role of Blues Historian rather than Flashy Hitmaker. This is a guy who released a live album in the early 1970s with a tuba section, okay? Not just one tuba—an entire section. Was it old-school? Avant-garde? Nobody knew. But there are a lot of people still around who love him for being so out there and willing to do weird stuff like that, whether or not it’s considered cool.
But cool is exactly the word for what he is when he takes the stage, dressed up in matching peacock-blue tropical shirt and shorts (with bright yellow banana-print stripes running down each side, very chic), sporting one of the larger Panama hats ever made, some impenetrable sunglasses and a big-ass metal Africa pendant. His smile as he launches into the opening instrumental is genuine and welcoming, an umbrella to knit us all together. But his clean guitar lines, plucked on a gargantuan blonde thing, would do that trick even if he were scowling. And the expert accompaniment of Bill Rich on reggae-ish bass and Kester Smith on New Orleans-style second-line drums doesn’t hurt one bit.
Mahal’s not above pulling out the hits early: “Fishin’ Blues’” is up next with its African circularity and easygoing charm, and “Corrina” makes an early appearance, which is good because that means that the moron behind me will stop yelling his request for it. Mahal is also not above a little ass-wiggle to make people laugh and smile. But just a little wiggle—less is more all night. “My Creole Belle” is pointillist Cajun Hank Williams; Mahal’s version of “Stagger Lee” is the most gentle, conversational of all time; and “Queen Bee,” which gets the biggest roars of the night, is like a gentle nudge, especially with its opening call: “Is the goddess in the house?”
This music is just all backwards. Everywhere he could streamline a tune, he goes the other way. Got a country blues? Intensify the “country” part. Got a John Lee Hooker boogie thing? Append a wild jazzy coda. This is the true genius of Taj Mahal: he’s too cool to be afraid of being uncool. And that helps us all get over any shyness or bad moods because of spilled beer that we might have. My new acquaintance in the crowd, who wishes to be identified only as “Random Blonde Chick in the Crowd,” wants me to write down the observation that she and her friend have had: “His hat looks like a sting ray.” So I do, and I pass this observation on to you. (It was actually more like a manta ray, but whatever.) It’s that kind of night.
Tonight, however, there is a problem: the iconic, ambitious, minimalist bluesman has a sore throat. “Could I get some lemon and honey and some hot hot hot water up here?” he requests. “A little of that and I’ll be okay.” The extra gravel in his voice adds a lot to his insinuations on “Sittin’ on Top of the World”. “You know your mama loves me / Your sister loves me too / Your father sittin’ in the kitchen says ‘You SOB I got my eye on you” is some funny stuff, but it’s better in this new kind of death metal growl Mahal is forced into. If this was Liam Gallagher, he’d storm offstage and go impregnate someone . . . but Taj Mahal ain’t no Liam Gallagher. Mahal doesn’t need a perfect voice to connect with a crowd—all he needs is a great song and his own wonderful self. And maybe an ass-wiggle or two. But the voice thing? Hell, he WORKS it.
The disadvantage of this is that he cuts the show a little short, but that’s okay—the evening ends just when it should, right after the three-song banjo-flavored encore. Perfect and to the point. We stumble out into the below-zero weather, dazed and smiling. (My brother was so happy to finally see one of his icons that he actually forgot to pick up his credit card from the bar and had to go back later.) A lot of us are still singing, badly: “Sittin’ on top of the world!” For a while, a couple hundred people forgot to be depressed and cynical. What the hell is wrong with that?