Goin' Up the North Country: Taj Mahal in Vermont

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The Taj Mahal Trio
Flynn Center for The Performing Arts
Burlington, Vermont
March 8, 2006

The perfectly unassuming way Taj Mahal came on stage March 8th and began to play without formal introduction set an understated tone for this evening at the Flynn Center. The low-key approach may have undercut the potency of the bluesman's music too, but that may be more of a comment on the times than the show itself.

Mavis Staples had begun the proceedings with a plucky performance that relied more on her history than vocal abilities eroded somewhat by time. Taj suffered no such shortcomings and certainly no lack of joy in performance as he was dancing behind his big hollow body guitar right from the first song.

But despite the focused and sympathetic accompaniment of drummer Chester Smith and bassist Bill Rich—both of whom took great initiative in their musical roles throughout the evening—Taj Mahal can only do so much with a trio; after all, he's not a brilliant instrumentalist himself and it's arguable how much he undercuts his musicianship with his showmanship: body language and facial expression is, in turn, a perfectly natural expression of Taj's joie de vivre, and a forced showbizzy concession to his audience.

The songs for which this man is famous have worn well over time and Taj made a point of placing them carefully throughout his set to retain his spectators' attention and enthusiasm: When you hear "Corrina, "Goin' Up the Country and Paint My Mailbox Blue, and "Fishin' Blues, you're struck not just by the authenticity they retain, but the way Taj Mahal, just as he did in when first re-introducing blues a whole new generation, allows his musicians to explore the music themselves.

Accordingly, the rhythm section of Smith and Rich played with great panache throughout the evening, at times, diverting attention from their frontman, as was the case on "Zanzibar: this exotic instrumental nevertheless illustrated how over the course of his near-forty year career, Taj Mahal has become something of a musicologist, unearthing the links between cultures solidified by their respective musics.

On this late winter night, Taj Mahal affected a similar bond with his audience and by extension within the members of audience itself. There was hardly a comment from the crowd that Taj didn't respond to with the utmost good nature as his affectation of a particularly raspy voice indicated a exceptionally spirited vocal and conversation. By so doing he enacted dialogues on multiple levels with the generally jubilant Flynn attendees, few if any of whom were left sitting when he urged them to dance on his rockin' close to a perfectly-entertaining, not to mention musically enlightening, hour and a half on the sparse stage.

Photo Credit
Lisa Law

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