Blues With a Feeling: Taj Mahal and Friends at UNC, “Thank you very please”

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgCarolina Performing Arts continued its American music series and its world music explorations simultaneously on Nov. 12 with the superb bluesman  Taj Mahal, his trio, his daughter Deva and her companion in Fredericks Brown, and the incomparable South African singer and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela in a concert in Memorial Hall that had the crowd hollering from the get-go.

Back in the days when I was hearing Taj (you just gotta love a man who re-names himself for one of the most beautiful things in the world, after starting off as Henry St. Claire Fredericks) in the old Cat’s Cradle and the old ArtsCenter, I never dreamed his skinny frame would fill out to such a degree, or that his insatiable appetite for the music would take him around the world to spread the love. But here he was, the big act, with his bass man and drummer, coming on after two other sets. It was great. He was so good 40 years ago, and he’s exponentially better now. I bet he has callouses on his fingers an inch thick. He had  an electric piano, three banjos and four guitars on stage–one of them–gold-toned–appeared to be a National steel Resonator. It was flashy, but it gave out that old Durham blues sound.

As it should. Young Taj was already steeped in music at home, but at about age 14, he discovered guitar, and learned to play from a neighbor man–from Durham. This was in the mid-1950s, and the Piedmont blues were in their glory days, but Taj also learned the Delta and Texas styles, all the while growing up in Springfield, Mass. He was tied to the South by his mother’s family, who were from “South Cackalacky, Chesterfield County, over by Cheraw, uh huh,” and before too long he was checking out the music of the Carolinas. He came to Carrboro and met Miss Libba Cotten (naturally, he played “Freight Train” Tuesday night, to much whistling and calling), then the late great Miss Etta Baker, from Morganton, and learned her special chords. On and on he has journeyed, banjo and guitar in hand. He played with the best of the living blues men, and now that’s what he is.

Taj Mahal in San Francisco, 2008 © Jay Blakesberg/Retna LTD.

Taj Mahal in San Francisco, 2008 © Jay Blakesberg/Retna LTD.

Still wearing blues jeans and a big straw hat, too. He opened with “Mama’s Goin’ Fishin'” on the gold guitar, finger picking, and frailing down with his thumb, his voice still wonderful at 70+.  Next up was “Corinna,”  then a long string of great blues songs with their unforgettable lyrics: “hand full of gimme, mouth full o’ much obliged;” “if I can’t have that big-legged woman I don’t want no skinny-leg girl at all;” sun gon’ shine in my back door someday.” To make all the classic songs even more remarkable, bass player Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith played complex contra-rhythms that created an extremely rich and resonant sound. It was a little disappointing that Taj didn’t play more banjo tunes, but a person can’t really complain when there’s a gold National guitar instead.

Fredericks Brown had opened the evening with a short, and enthusiastic, if not particularly distinguished, set of their own songs. Deva Mahal has a beautiful voice, however, and her father’s knack with phrasing. When she returned later to sing with Taj, they made glorious music.

Vusi Mahlasela. Photo: Aaron Farrington.

Vusi Mahlasela. Photo: Aaron Farrington.

Vusi Mahlasela’s set was very happy-making. Another big man of mature years, he came quietly on stage, slowly strapped on his large guitar, stretched his arms out horizontally for a long moment, then took a pause to get centered, before letting the steel strings ring out. He sang a South African song in two of the country’s eleven languages, accompanying the lilting, swaying tune with fabulous vocal trills, hollers, and hums, going down into prolonged growls now and then. He explained that the song dated from the Apartheid era, and its lyric called on people who had done bad things to come forward and be forgiven–if not, they would be exposed. “We should all wear forgiveness like a crown,” he said. His other songs were in the same vein–the next was a prayer for humanity–and the music in each was life-affirming. “Thank you very please,” he said after each song. He, too, returned to join the Taj Mahal Trio and Fredericks Brown, for a grand finale, ending with “Everybody is Somebody, Nobody is Nobody.”

Thank you very please!

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