Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Taj Mahal

  • Taj Mahal [Columbia, 1968]
  • The Real Thing [Columbia, 1971] B
  • Happy Just to Be Like I Am [Columbia, 1971] B+
  • Sounder [Columbia, 1972] C+
  • Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff [Columbia, 1972] B
  • Ooh So Good 'n Blues [Columbia, 1973] A-
  • Mo' Roots [Columbia, 1974] B+
  • Music Keeps Me Together [Columbia, 1975] C+
  • Satisfied 'n Tickled Too [Columbia, 1976] B-
  • Music fuh Ya (Musica para Tu) [Warner Bros., 1976] B
  • Brothers [Warner Bros., 1977] C-
  • The Taj Mahal Anthology: Volume 1 [Columbia, 1977] A-
  • Evolution (the Most Recent) [Warner Bros., 1978] C+
  • Taj's Blues [Columbia/Legacy, 1992] A
  • Phantom Blues [Private Music, 1996] Choice Cuts
  • An Evening of Acoustic Music [RFR, 1996] ***
  • Shoutin' in Key: Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band Live [Hannibal, 2000] ***
  • The Best of Taj Mahal [Columbia/Legacy, 2000] A
  • The Best of the Private Years [Private Music, 2000] *
  • Maestro [Heads Up, 2008] A-
  • The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 [Columbia/Legacy, 2012] **

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Taj Mahal [Columbia, 1968]
The former Henry Saint Claire Fredericks wasn't just the most prominent young African-American of the blues revival. He was its most credible voice, and more--forty years later, he's clearly an original stylist already in bloom. Avidly and affably fronting a superb Ry Cooder-Jesse Ed Davis band, Mahal does every standard here proud. Sleepy John Estes's "Leaving Trunk" he now owns. Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" he showed the world. The original "E Z Rider" he could have found on an old 78. [unknown]

The Real Thing [Columbia, 1971]
Taj's second straight two-album set is a live one, featuring sidemen from John Simon and John Hall to Kwasi DziDournu, four count-'em four tubas, and ten count-'em ten titles. Lots of fun, but as you might expect, things get very loose, especially when the tubists lay their burdens down. B

Happy Just to Be Like I Am [Columbia, 1971]
This relaxed, witty survey of musical Afro-America is strongest when its compositions verge on interpretations. You hear the steel drums on "West Indian Revelation" and realize that the foreign lilt of "Chevrolet" is Caribbean. You hear "Black Spirit Boogie" and realize how many ways there are to keep an acoustic guitar solo interesting once you've acquired a natural sense of rhythm. And you hear "Oh Susanna" and realize it's back to where it once belonged. B+

Sounder [Columbia, 1972]
The first soundtrack ever patterned after a field recording, this suite/montage/succession of hums, moans, claps, and plucked fragments, all keyed to Lightnin' Hopkins's gorgeous gospel blues "Needed Time," is regarded by one trustworthy observer, Greil Marcus, as Taj's most eloquent music. But even Greil doesn't know anybody who agrees. I've always regarded field recordings as study aids myself. C+

Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff [Columbia, 1972]
Heard in the wake of one of Taj's magic shows, the live side seemed an amusing simulation, but no more--the call-and-response goes on too long at 3:40. This might also be said of the 8:40 Spanish guitar (banjo?) solo on side two. The record earns its title, though--the Smithsonian ought to hire this man. Latest instrument: the Pointer Sisters. B

Ooh So Good 'n Blues [Columbia, 1973]
Taj hasn't used drums on a record since Happy Just to Be Like I Am, but he rocks so easy it took me till now to notice. On "Little Red Hen" he matches the Pointer Sisters strut for strut, and though that's the only great one he also renews "Dust My Broom" and "Frankie and Albert," earns a medal from fat liberation by reviving "Built for Comfort," and picks two time-honored tunes out of his National steel-bodied. In short, his best in years, only what experimental genie drives him to flaw every one of his albums? Here it's "Teacup's Jazzy Blues Tune," named after his jazz-loving brother-manager and featuring a virtually inaudible upright bass solo. A-

Mo' Roots [Columbia, 1974]
Taj hies to the West Indies, singing part of "Cajun Waltz" in French and part of "Why Did You Have to Desert Me?" in Spanish and translating "Blackjack Davy" into reggae. Reggae predominates, a natural extension of his sleepy, sun-warmed blues. But that doesn't mean you wouldn't rather hear the Slickers do "Johnny Too Bad." B+

Music Keeps Me Together [Columbia, 1975]
In which Taj doffs the mask of folklorist and reveals himself as a pop singer in a vaguely Caribbean-Brazilian mode. Vagueness--and worse, cuteness (what they do to Joseph Spence's "Roll, Turn, Spin")--provided by the Intergalactic Soul Messengers Band. Best cut: a folkloric Caribbeanizing of "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." C+

Satisfied 'n Tickled Too [Columbia, 1976]
Better the Intergalactic Soul Messengers Band, who improvise less and back more (though unfortunately they compose more too), than the East-West Connection Orchestra, who root Taj in Philadelphia on "Baby Love" (no, not that "Baby Love"). And better John Hurt's title tune and Taj's "Ain't Nobody's Business" than either. B-

Music fuh Ya (Musica para Tu) [Warner Bros., 1976]
This time the Caribbeanization adds steel drums and a pervasive calypso beat to the country-blues vocal phrasing and jazz-voiced horns, and finally an appropriate smoothness is achieved. The songs aren't much, but "Sailin' Into Walker's Cay" cancels out his bass player's tedious "Curry," and if you have to listen easy you might as well relax with this. B

Brothers [Warner Bros., 1977]
Movie music for a film about George Jackson. It's even got a whole side of new songs. George Jackson would have seen through it. C-

The Taj Mahal Anthology: Volume 1 [Columbia, 1977]
About time somebody whittled Taj's experiments down to a few classics, and nice to hear a blues album by him, even one from '66-'71. He sure is more idiomatic than any of the white guys who were doing revivals back then. Though he uses drums and electric guitars most of the time, he doesn't pattern himself on the hard, shouting Chicago style of Muddy Waters and such intense Delta forebears as Robert Johnson--his singing is assertive yet relaxed, like an unmenacing Lightnin' Hopkins with a healthy admixture of John Hurt. He does get too relaxed at times, even with "Six Days on the Road" to keep him alert. But this is where to begin. A-

Evolution (the Most Recent) [Warner Bros., 1978]
Things finally get going toward the end of side two with an insane Howlin' Wolf imitation and a calypso-blues trucking song complete with CB. But by then the flaccid fusions and anonymous collective compositions have turned the same steel drums which sounded so fresh on Music fuh Ya into an annoyance, like a combination cymbal wash and synthesizer on a bad disco record. C+

Taj's Blues [Columbia/Legacy, 1992]
I used to regard Taj as a walking Afro-musical encyclopedia, but the more I listened to this endlessly listenable anthology the less derivative he seemed. Nobody else has ever sung blues this way--cutting rural slack with urban hyperconsciousness, he's Jim Crow's bumpkin turning into Zip Coon's dandy without the negative vibe of either stereotype. Sly and cocky, but so full of fun you don't resent it, he sneaks beats from all over the diaspora under these mostly classic tunes as he shows off the effortless size and avidity of his voice and the National steel-bodied and acoustic 12-string he tiptoes out with. A

Phantom Blues [Private Music, 1996]
"Ooh Poo Pah Doo" Choice Cuts

An Evening of Acoustic Music [RFR, 1996]
old dog's blues ("Satisfied 'n' Tickled Too," "Sittin' on Top of the World") ***

Shoutin' in Key: Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band Live [Hannibal, 2000]
Love so much music and there's always more songs waiting ("Honky Tonk," "Ain't That a Lot of Love"). ***

The Best of Taj Mahal [Columbia/Legacy, 2000]
Though the box is too much as usual, rest assured that none of his albums have gotten worse. But since not everyone's a natural sucker for John Hurt's love child moved down to New Orleans and taken up with a St. Kitts woman, here's where to find out how much you care. Five of 17 songs are also on the paradigm-shifting 1992 comp Taj's Blues, which also begins (and why not?) with "Statesboro Blues" and "Leaving Trunk." But starting with 1969's The Natch'l Blues, say, would mean missing, to name just two, Dave Dudley's Teamster-certified "Six Days on the Road" and the Pointer Sisters' sashaying backup on "Cakewalk Into Town." Don't die without hearing that one. It's reason to live all by itself. A

The Best of the Private Years [Private Music, 2000]
The best was discovering the black music the '60s folkie missed ("Mockingbird," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"). *

Maestro [Heads Up, 2008]
Maybe I have a weakness for African-Americans from Hawaii, or maybe this one knows how to bend the blues, croon the diaspora and also sing Hawaiian. Then again, on his strongest non-collaborative album since the '70s, it's possible he's just extra excited. At 66, he leads multiple bands, including Los Lobos and Ivan Neville's crew through previously unmined naturals, from "Scratch My Back" to "Diddy Wah Diddy," and keeper originals such as "Strong Man Holler," in praise of a woman who was sweet 17 in halcyon 1959. A-

The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 [Columbia/Legacy, 2012]
A dozen previously unearthed semiprecious stones plus ramshackle concert ("Sweet Mama Janisse," "I Pity the Poor Immigrant") **

See Also