Taj Mahal is certainly one of the enduring figures in 20th century American blues. That status comes in large part from his ability to balance both respect for bedrock blues traditions and a desire to place those traditions in a variety of unorthodox musical contexts. But for all but the most devout fans, the only truly essential Taj Mahal CD is his second release, 1969's Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home double set. The former showcases Mahal's way with laid-back electric blues, while the latter is a real treat that nestles into intimate, bare-bones folk blues. Both records feature Mahal's warm, husky rasp at its soulful best.
Compared with those milestones, Sugar Mama Blues is anything but essential. In fact, anyone who's not a most devout fan should avoid it at all costs. A release like this can serve only two purposes: give completists something to fawn over, and damage an artist's legacy in everyone else's eyes. Apparently Mahal himself approved Sugar Mama Blues. He must have had the completists in mind, because while not in itself horrible, it's a horribly bad representation of his music.
Recorded live at Ralle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place Des Arts in Montreal in 1980 with a five-piece band, Sugar Mama Blues captures Mahal during an extended retreat from recording that lasted most of the decade. During this time, Mahal took an interest in calypso and reggae music. That interest is reflected in the show -- in the worst of ways. Unless you're at a tropical island wedding, on a cruise ship, or at a Jimmy Buffet concert, steel drums sound annoying and out of place. They're all over Sugar Mama Blues, lending an unwanted Star Wars cantina scene flavor to even the most trusty blues standards. Likewise, Rudy Costa's saxophone only detracts from the songs on which it appears. Only on "Corrine Corrina" and "Honey Bee", with their reggae rhythms, does the instrumentation jive with the material. Dave Matthews must have listened to a bootleg of these couple tracks before forming his band, such is their free-flowing, vaguely multicultural vibe.
This is 1980, after all, so perhaps it's inevitable that the specter of disco would raise its ugly head on opener "Good Morning Miss Brown". That doesn't mean it's any less unwelcome, though. Not even a couple standards from Giant Step can save the day. "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" sounds rushed thanks to drummer Kester Smith's unwise decision to play double time. Sonny Boy Williamson's lecherous "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" suffers from the calypso treatment, sounding novel where it should be sinister.
Through it all, Mahal manages not to embarrass himself. He speaks some French to the crowd and is in fine form throughout. His rich voice and charisma make the flowery instrumentation seem redundant. Maybe part of the problem with that instrumentation is that it's recorded and mixed so badly. Mahal's vocals are clear at front and center of the mix, but everything else is bootleg quality -- and that's 1980s bootleg quality: the drums sound like cardboard, the bass is flat, and everything else is tinny. The track-by-track liner notes do offer some consolation.
You could argue that an artist of Taj Mahal's stature warrants the release of any recordings with archival value. But then you'd be giving the decidedly minor Sugar Mama Blues justification it doesn't really deserve.