Multi-instrumentalist, multi-Grammy winning musical sensation, Taj Mahal, returned to the stage at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, California on Tuesday night. There, the Blues Hall of Fame inductee and Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement honoree hosted his first-ever livestream performance. For twenty dollars, this breathing embodiment of blues music beamed his casually meandering style into the warmth of living rooms everywhere.
Taj sat down on a solitary barstool at center stage, wearing his favorite festive red Hawaiian shirt and a hat to protect his eyes from the bright spotlight’s glare, surrounded by a mélange of banjos, his guitar, and ukulele. His white whiskers engulfed the lower part of his face and neck. His weathered voice was wrinkled from decades performing on the stage, on the road. Like a fine Scotch in a wooden barrel, time has protected and developed the flavor of his music. At the age of 78, the Harlem native’s youthful charisma and spirit riffed through the pages of history to revive traditional songs that were older than him.
In true Taj Mahal fashion, most songs were preceded or followed-up with a backstory or an acknowledgment to the tune’s composer. The camera introduced us to a stage full of instruments surrounding the lone bluesman while he casually fiddled with a kalimba. Opening the setlist, Taj dove into “Cakewalk into Town” off his 1972 album, Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff. Taj acknowledged the strangeness of the year but admitted that it is a good time to relax and recharge—especially after 60 years on tour.
Next, Taj performed Mississippi bluesman Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What’s Wrong” as well as “Sugar Babe”, a song that he learned from Texas guitarist, Mance Lipscomb. From his own catalogue, “New Hula Blues” and its carefree melody emerged to dance barefoot in the sand before Taj honored his late friend and mentor, Mississippi John Hurt with a rendition of “Spike Driver’s Blues”.
To follow, Taj jumped into a performance of the old blues traditional “C.C. Rider” which is accredited to Ma Rainey, even though its origins almost certainly began in vaudeville shows of the first years of the 20th century. Recordings of the song have been made by Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elvis Presley, and the Grateful Dead, as well as the aforementioned Mississippi John Hurt.
After a dedication to his daughter, Taj proceeded to whip up a storm with an instrumental version of “Kulanjan”. A brief pause allowed Taj to ruminate on the current pandemic atmosphere. “Interesting time for all of us,” he mused. “Time of reflection, time of global relapse. [Reconnecting] with our friends, family, lovers, significant others, children, mothers and fathers, people in foreign lands. Alls I’m saying is, it ain’t nothing but us humans down here, and we gotta make the best with what we got.”
“I know you know this tune!” Taj predicted while strumming the introduction of “Queen Bee”. Taj moved on to belt out another heartwarming classic with “Corinna” before putting his hollow-bodied metal resonator guitar down and picking up “Doctor Jo”, his beloved banjo. As he explained, this banjo is extraordinary because unlike most 4 or 5 string banjos, the banjo that he was playing has an extra low string.
With “Dr. Jo” in hand, Taj Mahal dedicated “Tom and Sally Drake” to his friends in British Columbia who were part of his “salvation.” Taj switched banjos, favoring a banjo dubbed “Big Bubba”, for a peaceful stroll down “Diving Duck Blues” which he accredited to Sleepy John Estes, as he first heard the tune from him. Taj Mahal dedicated the next song, “Candy Man”, to Ry Cooder and acknowledged the unique talent of his former bandmate in the Rising Sons. The tune was the only single that Rising Sons ever released.
After thanking the crew and audience, Taj stated, “I always gotta play a piece of music for my Mother,” and opted for the Gospel-derived “Ananias, Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus Is”. Taj explained that he never really cared for the song until a young female peer’s rendition inspired him to learn to play it himself.
Mahal traded “Big Bubba” for his tiny ukulele and dedicated the next tune to Arthur Godfrey before playing Jim Jackson’s “Wild About My Lovin’”. Taj broke it down to talk about the Hawaiian arrangements that he learned by trading knowledge and licks with Michael Barretto—with influences accredited to Philip Kunia Pahinui—during his time in the New Hula Blues Band. Taj proceeded to test the waters with a new song that he admitted was still unfinished.
Once again, Taj picked up his resonator to pluck the notes of “Fishing Blues”. While adjusting his guitar strap, Taj Mahal spoke about how much he misses being surrounded by his instruments and playing music. After addressing the African influence of Dynast Amir, he dedicated the next song, “Zanzibar”, to him. Taj admitted that he had learned about the island of Zanzibar through his mother’s spice rack, recalling the origins of her cinnamon, and comically attempted a rough French accent.
Before performing the old traditional song, “Working on a Push Boat”, Taj called us back to the days when goods were hauled up and down the Mississippi River. To close his first-ever livestream, Taj Mahal sang an emotionally-charged take on “Take a Giant Step”, reminding everyone to “Remember the feeling as a child / when you woke up and morning smiled / it’s time you felt that way again!”
With so much uncertainty surrounding events this year and the next, Taj Mahal’s upcoming schedule is a mystery. Hopefully, more live streams are around the corner now that he has finally broken the ice into the digital world for the first time after 60 years of performing on the road. Wherever and whenever Taj Mahal wants to showcase his extensive repertoire, there will certainly be an audience to soak up his music like iguanas sunbathing on a hot rock. Thank you, Taj, for breaking up the mid-week doldrums with flavor, sunshine, and the warmth of your voice.
Setlist: Taj Mahal (Livestream) | UC Theatre | Berkeley, CA | 11/17/20
Set: Cakewalk Into Town, Baby What’s Wrong, Sugar Babe , New Hula Blues, Spike Driver’s Blues , C.C. Rider, Kulanjan, Queen Bee, Corinna, Tom and Sally Drake, Diving Duck Blues, Candy Man, [Ananias] Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus Is, Wild About My Lovin’, New Song (Unfinished and Untitled), Fishing Blues, Zanzibar, Working on a Push Boat, Take a Giant Step