Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ – TajMo
Tajmo Records LLC/Concord Records CRE00431-02
11 songs – 43 minutes
When Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ met in the studio to record this album, the synergy was akin to a supernova, pairing two of the biggest stars in the blues world, and this release, which combines the efforts of two of the music universe’s brightest lights, is certain to be essential listening for perpetuity.
The pair share five Grammys, but come from different spectrums. Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in the Bronx, Taj grew up in Springfield, Mass., the son of an Afro-Caribbean jazz pianist/arranger father and school teacher/gospel-singing mother. Now in his mid-70s, he emerged on the scene in his early 20s during the folk revival of the ’60s and has been at the forefront of the blues world ever since with dozens of albums to his credit. A multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, harmonica, piano and banjo, he’s a musicologist of the first order and is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Western music.
About a decade Taj’s junior, Keb was born in South Los Angeles and grew up in neighboring Compton. An actor with major films to his credit, he began his musical career as a steel drum and bass player in a calypso band before backing violinist Papa John Creach, best known for his work with Jefferson Airplane, on four albums. A multi-instrumentalist in his own right, he earned his first gold record in the ’70s for the song “Git Fiddler,” co-written with Creach, which appeared on Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus album. But it took another 20 years or so for his star to ascend in the blues heavens. A fan favorite, his voice is familiar to outsiders, too. One of his tunes served as the theme for the long-running Mike & Molly TV show.
As powerful and entertaining as the pair are individually, TajMo proves they’re even a more potent force together. And they’ve gathered together some of the best musicians in the business to drive their message home. The lineup includes Joe Walsh, Trevor Linden and Phil Hughley on guitar, Michael Hicks on keyboards, Keith Everette and Quentin Ware on trumpet, Roland Barber and Roger Bissell on trombone, Nestor Torres on flute, Sam Levine on sax and flute, Jovan Quallo on sax, Marcus Finnie, Keio Stroud, Chester Thompson, Thad Witherspoon and Crystal Taliefero on percussion, and Phillip Moore, Tommy Sims and Eric Ramey on bass with Jeff Taylor on accordion and vocal contributions from Bonnie Raitt, Liz Wright, Dain Ussery and Sidney Rudder.
In addition to delivering two tunes co-written by Taj and Keb’ and four more numbers from Mo’s songbook, this sweet, upbeat disc mines covers from several disparate disciplines. While traditional themes flow like a river, don’t expect any gutbucket blues. No matter the subject matter, no matter how bleak, the music will leave you smiling.
The Taj/Mo’ original “Don’t Leave Me Here” kicks off the action. It’s a medium-tempo shuffle featuring Taj on harp. The pair trade vocals, as they do throughout, and insist: “If you’re goin’ to Mississippi/Where that Delta sky is sweet/Well you know I’m stuck here in Chicago/Please don’t leave me here.” The lyrics are a stunning reversal of the common theme of poor sharecroppers yearning for life in the Windy City. Some fine picking introduces Piano Red’s “She Knows How To Rock Me” and carries the tune throughout. It’s a great version with Taj providing the raspy lead vocals and Keb’ delivering the response.
A pair of Keb’s tunes follow. The duo trade verses for “All Around The World.” Co-written with Chic Street Man, it features an island beat and female chorus as it delivers the message that people need to find a better path toward peace and understanding. The ballad “Om Sweet Om,” co-written with Om Jahari and John Lewis Parker, continues the message forward as it urges folks to open up their hearts, that the sun doesn’t care who he shines upon.
“Shake Me In Your Arms,” written by Billy Nichols, an artist best known for his work with Martha And The Vandellas and B.T. Express, is a gleefully positive mid-tempo blues that suggests a night of romance instead of a fight with a lover. Keb’s “That’s Who I Am,” co-written by Al Anderson and Leslie Satcher, describes the feeling of finally finding true love and understanding the inability to live without it.
A pair of covers — Sleepy John Estes’ “Diving Duck Blues” and Pete Townshend’s Who classic “Squeeze Box” — receive thoroughly modern makeovers before Keb’s funky “Ain’t Nobody Talkin’,” written with John Caldwell, sings about an illicit love affair, and the Taj/Keb’-penned “Soul,” a multi-layered number with a Caribbean beat, states simply that soul power spans the globe. The disc ends with a little hope for the future in a cover of John Mayer’s “Waiting For The World To Change.”
Available through all major retailers, TajMo is a pure delight throughout. Strongly recommended, and a serious contender for awards across the blues spectrum in the year ahead.