[26 June 2003]
Taj Mahal has been around for a while to say the least. With 40 albums in nearly 35 years of recording, one of the masters of “international blues” is back with another blend of Hawaiian and Caribbean influenced blues tracks. But there are also traces of other genres throughout the album. The result makes the listener believe Mahal has incorporated nearly every style possible into this collection of soothing and relaxing songs. Beginning with the reggae-cum-blues track “Great Big Boat”, Mahal has a large supporting cast to create a very soothing and calming effect. Or, basically what Jimmy Buffett has tried to do since day one. Sounding a bit like current reggae stars like Shaggy, Mahal’s has more of an older, wiser feeling to it. The instruments, including saxophone, only adds to its international or genre-bending style. “Sail away down the coast of Mexico / Take a slow ride to the Panama Canal and come out in the Caribbean”, Mahal sings rather easily.
More up-tempo is the dub reggae “Black Jack Davy”. It’s also a song Mahal leads from the beginning and never lets go of. From the Hawaiian guitar or even subtle flute touches working off in the distance, this song feeds off the opener and makes it similar to a Bob Marley album, namely the flow isn’t going to veer off in some weird direction. A fine guitar solo is also present during the bridge, leading into a flute solo by Rudy Costa. What’s even better about this song is that it doesn’t end as quickly as the first, allowing itself to be fully flushed out before returning to the concluding verses. The song sounds just as fresh as when Mahal originally performed it on his 1974 Mo Roots album. “Moonlight Lady” takes the mood of the album down slightly as Mahal seems to come off like a forties crooner on this track. Fred Lunt’s Hawaiian steel guitar adds a lot of color to this track.
“King Edward’s Throne” has a Latin groove to it while Mahal gives a decent performance with a group harmony. Lyrically the song isn’t exactly strong, but as so often in his career, Mahal’s music tends to hit the listener’s in the gut. It resembles Squirrel Nut Zippers being channeled through Inner Circle (of the theme from television show Cops). If there’s one knock against this song, it seems to be repeating itself far too often and with little variation within the solos. The song fades out rather blandly as well. Thankfully, “African Herbsman” puts things right again—a soulful reggae beat with Mahal giving his best performance by far. “The remembrance of today / Is the sadness of tomorrow”, he sings in a style that Robert Cray has mastered. The repetition of the title in the lyrics, though, diminishes the song a tad though near the homestretch. “Baby, You’re My Destiny” has Mahal resembling Louis Armstrong wearing a loud floral patterned shirt. Again, Buddy Costa works magic during the song. “Baby won’t you cookie cookie cook for me”, is one of the song’s more humorous lines.
One of the big surprises of this record is the complete revamping of “Stagger Lee”, the song made famous by Lloyd Price. The swinging nature to this number is what makes it roll off so tremendously. Mahal is at his best here while Paul Cockett and Pancho Graham round out the song with liliu ukulele and acoustic bass respectively. Drummer Kester Smith keeps it all together, which is difficult given the amount of instruments rotating through this track. “Livin’ on Easy” sums up most of the feeling the listener infers from the album. Fred Lunt’s performance carries the song while Mahal sings about taking it easy with a bottle of whiskey.
The last pair of songs begins with “All Along the Watchtower”, a tune which has the first sense of urgency as the Bob Dylan tune. There’s isn’t much reworking of the track aside from the reggae rhythm arrangement. The group tends to breeze through the middle portion of the songs perhaps too easily. Closing with the brilliant instrumental title track, Mahal has once again proved that his music is your average mix of blues, reggae, calypso, Latin, Caribbean, Hawaiian, and Mississippi delta—seems like everyone is doing this these days. Tongue-in-cheek aside, this is again another very strong record of genre-less music.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mahaltaj-hanapepe/