When I was just a kid growing up in Los Angeles, my mother played a wide array of records for my brother and me, but the musician who brings me back to those glory days is—wait for it—Taj Mahal. My mother played 1976’s Satisfied ’N’ Tickled Too so often that, even after years of not hearing it, songs like “Black Man, Brown Man” and “Satisfied ’N’ Tickled Too” are firmly lodged in my brain with nearly the same sense of necessity as things like breathing.
Since I learned that the Taj Mahal Trio will be appearing at The Lensic Performing Arts Center, I’ve been listening to the record again, and I’m pleased to announce that it still owns your face.
Sure, as a child, I didn’t really have the capacity to dissect the songs or understand why I loved them. Hell, as kids, most folks don’t even have the wherewithal to hate much of anything beyond vegetables and math. Thus, almost any music you hear is a wonderful and exciting new experience. All I really knew back then was that Taj’s melodies did something strange to me, made me move.
Now, as a mature man of reason with uncanny listening/opinion-forming abilities (and the haters to prove it), I’ve paid closer attention to Satisfied, and I’ve come to the realization that it’s kind of a strange album to fit within the blues genre, To me, blues is one of the purest forms for the expression of sorrow, but these are upbeat songs that heavily incorporate reggae-esque sounds and a whole mess of bright horn play. It’s a highly danceable and infectiously catchy piece of work that touches on the topics of recreational drug use, race relations and—the biggie—love. To me, this record shows that the blues can be about having a good time just as much as it can be about misery and loss, and Taj Mahal nails it without any needless wanking or endless guitar solos.
When I was an awkward preteen trying to learn the guitar, my teacher, probably sick of working on Weezer songs, turned me on to an early project of Taj Mahal’s called Rising Sons. In addition to boasting one of the coolest collaborations in music history—Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder—the band’s self-titled 1966 debut was my first real exposure to honest-to-goodness blues. I’d been bad-mouthing Stevie Ray Vaughan to my father mere days earlier, but Rising Sons’ gritty sound was equal parts slide guitar, harmonica and passionate vocals, and it was anything but boring. The songs had a certain attitude that spoke to 12-year-old me, and I listened. The record is incredible for “If the River Was Whiskey (Divin’ Duck Blues)” alone, but songs like “The Devil’s Got My Woman” or “By and By (Poor Me)” only sweeten the deal.
Fifty years have passed (since the Rising Sons release, not since my preteens), and Taj Mahal continues to be a blues force able to just about destroy all other modern-day blues forces. Though my experiences focus on those specific two records, Taj Mahal has released dozens of albums and will no doubt bring something special to his upcoming show. How many musicians have been able to stay fresh and exciting for 50-plus years? I don’t know, but it can’t be many, and the ones that are still around (I’m looking at you, Keith Richards) seem kind of tired
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