The Taj Mahal Trio at Higher Ground

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The Taj Mahal Trio
Higher Ground
South Burlington, Vermont
June 18, 2009

Given the pre-show buzz in the ballroom, it is quite likely Taj Mahal had the Higher Ground crowd in the palm of his hand before he even ambled onstage on June 18th. He didn't take their loyalty for granted, however, or just go through the motions—he only made it look that easy.

More a stylist than an innovator, Taj Mahal has nevertheless carved a comfortable niche for himself over the years, and like the greatest bluesmen, he has refused to become complacent. On the contrary, he sounds more authentic as time passes. If it is possible to gallop quietly, that is indeed what the headliner and his two sidekicks (Bill Rich on bass and Kestrel Smith on drums) did to open their Vermont show. That beautiful summer evening, Taj Mahal hit the notes at the root of the basic blues progressions of "Further On Up the Road" with unerring accuracy and authority.

The shout-along with the devoted audience, "The Blues Is Alright," may have been a precious overstatement, but Taj Mahal showed throughout the ninety-minute show no sign whatsoever of being jaded even with the most familiar tunes in his canon. "Fishing' Blues" and "Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue" may have received the most obviously loud recognition from the audience, but that response was no greater than the applause that greeted the conclusion of "Zanzibar," a selection from the latest studio album Maestro (Telarc, 2008). Taj Mahal and trio turned it into a blues meditation as invigorating as it was mesmerizing by the time it was over.

While many may be accustomed to hearing Taj Mahal with his six-piece Phantom Blues Band, or one of other larger ensembles, the Taj Mahal Trio laid bare the essence of his artistry in this no-frills setting, and it may well be preferable. While the material itself did not differ dramatically as the night went on, when the man moved from hollow body electric to acoustic guitar then to electric keyboard, the contrast in the instrumentation was sufficient to prevent homogeneity and even served to highlight, in a positive sense, the uniformity of material like "Sweet Mama Janisse."

There was a refreshing simplicity to the music that no doubt derives from Taj Mahal's musicological explorations into musical forms from West Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Hawaii throughout his career. One of his earliest albums is titled the The Natch'l Blues (Legacy, 1968) and he could have billed his Vermont show the same way.

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