performance. Perhaps thrown by the intimate nature of an Allen Room appearance, this veteran bluesmaster was in an enquiring, self-conscious mood for this first of the weekend's four shows in the Lincoln Center venue. He peppered his relatively short (though very pointed) set with thoughts on the audience's expectations. After blowing everyone away with an initial run of stoking electric guitar-loaded blues chuggers, Mahal almost apologized that all present had to sit through this sequence, before getting to the ostensibly more popular semi-acoustic material from his peak period of commercial success. We're talking "Corrina" and "Fishin' Blues," in particular.
It's not so widely mentioned that Mahal was actually born in Harlem, so this was almost a homecoming gig. Given that the 7.30pm crowd had to clear the room for the 9.30pm influx, Mahal's performance was a model of concise attack, with no possibility for the attention to momentarily wander. There was no chance of any dragging feet, either. Apart from when the man himself tripped over his guitar lead, then instantly turned this mishap into a backwards-wiggling dance movedheer professionalism and fleet footwork combined. Speaking of movement, Mahal seemed to be puzzled by the all-seated settings that so often provide an environment for the blues nowadays. He was looking, misty-eyed, back to the old days of beer-soaked roadhouses, gently mocking the studious, analytical connoisseur-ship so often applied to the music. But, still, he was admitting that if folks rate an experience exceedingly highly, they might just want to sit and savor it rather than simply quaff'n'hoof.
Having previously caught Mahal in just such an all-standing jointand also in much larger concert hallsit was, indeed, a luxury to view his art close-up, against that famed Allen Room backdrop of Central Park. This was proof that an electric guitar can still be loaded with tension, excitement and power, even though relatively quiet compared with the more traditional blues haunt of B.B. King's Blues Club, where volume is consistently mammoth. That's great, in its own way; but here was the chance to confirm that music can still seethe if leashed with lower amplification. It's all in the controlled distortion, and in Mahal's low-growled post-Howlin' Wolf vocalizations. Bill Rich's electric bass was also notable for its speaker-bustin' strength, his amplifier cabinet expanding and contracting, stressed to the limit. This was the best bass sound heard in many months, still delivered with a reasonably contained volume level: sinewy, entwined lines, always percussively nimble. Poor Kester Smith; his drums weren't doing any sonic damage, but his rhythms were suitably limber.
Mahal has the advantage, over most of his contemporaries, of being a multi-instrumental songwriter as well as a wily wit in-between the songs. He opened on electric guitar, switched to semi-acoustic, and then briefly sat at the piano-organ keyboard. He even brandished a banjo, joking about that as well. Of course, Mahal is attuned to a multitude of global musics, and his "Zanzibar" number was inspired by his visit to that island, in the wake of a cross-Africa expedition. It sounds more like a Malian tune, but this forty-year-veteran has always compiled multiple ethnic styles into a series of pan-global distillations. This is not to say that he lacks an innate understanding of these forms; quite the opposite, in fact. He inhales all of this music, deeply and profoundly.
How was it to be female, sitting and listening to this bluesman? Nearly all of the songs were about girls and women, and now even grandmothers (the first tight-jeaned generation of such beings, as the troubadour pointed out). Boogie woogie-ing with these fair creatures was always uppermost in Mahal's mind. all night long. It's just a shame that he almost seemed to feel guilty about playing the fully-rollin' blues on his electric guitar. It would surely have been better for Mahal to climax the set with another run of these smoking songs, instead of resolutely sticking with his phased semi-acoustic guitar, however distinctive that signature sound.
Raúl Malo & Michael Guerra City Winery February 25, 2011