After returning to the stage for a solo livestream at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, CA last November, multi-instrumentalist Henry Saint Claire Fredericks—better known by his stage name, Taj Mahal—brought in the Phantom Blues Band with special guest Jon Cleary to help fill the same stage this past Saturday. The Phantom Blues Band consists of Tony Braunagel on drums, Larry Fulcher on bass, Johnny Schell on guitar, Joe Sublett on saxophone, and Les Lovitt on trumpet, in addition to Cleary on piano and organ. The result was an evening of music that was healing for the soul; a dose of medicine that this socially-distanced world desperately needed.

With a rich and full sound, Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band dug through the blues and jazz archives, reviving some compositions that were written over one hundred years ago with the earliest known performances coinciding with the birth of recorded music. As with the blues, some versions are much older.

History has not been kind to the original writers and credits have long been lost among the smoke of dingy roadhouses, littered bus depots, and the shadowed back alleys of sprawling metropolises. The memories have been scattered like broken glass. Performers, like Taj Mahal, are the embodiment of musical history. They retell long-forgotten stories that were passed down from microphone to audience and mentor to student, blowing from town to town like an old newspaper caught in the wind.

With six other musicians on stage, the multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal had more freedom to put the guitar down in favor of a more intense and focused harmonica or vocal performance. His freed-up hands also allowed him to gesticulate while singing and to dance in his suggestive style.

Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band kicked off the set with “Strut”. Three of the PBB—Tony Braunagel, Johnny Schell, and Joe Sublett—are featured on 1993’s Dancing with the Blues album, from which “Strut” is taken. The septet followed with a lively performance of “Diddy Wah Diddy”. Although written by Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley, other notable covers were recorded by Captain Beefheart, Ty Segall Band, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Taj Mahal’s charismatic personality radiated energy as he blew harmonica or sang while dancing jovially.

Taj then led the band through “EZ Rider” before he gave a quick rundown of the setlist and joked with the virtual audience, “How’s everybody doin’ out there in ‘Zoomland?’” Next, Taj picked up his guitar for a cover of Sam Thread’s song from 1929, “You Rascal You”. Listed on 1997’s Señor Blues album, the tune has been covered by such prominent legends as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Sammy Davis Jr., Fats Domino, John Fogerty, and Dr. John.

Taj picked up his harmonica to follow with another oldie, “Chevrolet” off 1971’s Happy Just to Be Like I Am. The tune was written by Memphis Minnie and first recorded with Kansas Joe in 1930. Taj’s gravelly vocals, much like Mike Mattison in the Derek Trucks Band version, did the original justice.

As Taj picked up his guitar once more, he explained that anybody in the world experiencing a drought should play Delroy Wilson’s “Rain from the Sky”. Favoring his mandolin, Taj led the other six musicians through Jim Jackson’s “Wild About My Lovin’”. Taj injected his characteristic purrs into the melody—half-singing braggadocio, half seductive pillow talk.

Two more staples in Taj Mahal’s live repertoire were performed by the soulful septet with Sleepy John Estes’ 1929 “Diving Duck Blues” preceding “Queen Bee”. The song appeared on Taj Mahal’s self-titled debut album and again—fifty-one years later—on his Grammy-winning Tajmo album featuring Keb’ Mo’. Taj put down his instruments to sing and gyrate on his barstool for the whiskey anthem, then picked up his metallic hollow-bodied guitar for a romantic performance of “Queen Bee” like a siren singing to sailors.

Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues” made a rare appearance on the evening’s setlist. The 1956 composition soon became a jazz standard and is listed on Taj’s 1997 album of the same name. Taj played maracas throughout the song while Cleary ripped off a clean piano solo after playing the organ and piano with separate hands, simultaneously. Meanwhile, the horns filled the song’s sound with a slow, but festive flavor.

Taj grabbed a harmonica for a presentation of “Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue” from his second studio album, Natch’l Blues. Released in 1968, the lyrics “I’m leavin’ L.A., baby / the smog got me down / Movin’ up to the country, baby / where there ain’t / no doggone smog around” find new meaning in this COVID-19 pandemic.

Another rarity, “Here in the Dark”, then emerged. Taj described the song from 1996’s Phantom Blues as “personification of the blues and getting stepped on.” In the last two songs, Johnny Schell fired off bluesy guitar solos on the track Eric Clapton lent his skills to on the album recording. A warm dedication introduced “Further on Down the Road” written by Jesse Davis III and Taj Mahal. This song was re-released with fellow Hawaiian native Jack Johnson on 2008’s Maestro.

Taj picked up his metallic hollow-bodied guitar for a cast-and-catch of Henry Thomas’ 1928 song, “Fishing Blues”. Taj included it on his 1971 live album, The Real Thing, and the song represents a classic Taj show. Returning to his original catalog, Taj then performed a doting take on “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” off 1996’s Phantom Blues. Cleary mesmerized the bluesman during a couple of measures and threw down a couple more after Taj’s bellowing demand, “Take another one!”

Before the next song, Taj Mahal retold the story of him as a teenager, coming home with worn-out soles on his shoes. His mother would ask him “What do you have razor blades in your shoes?” The jaunty song that Taj was dancing to was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ 1960 hit, “Hoochie Coochie Coo”, and it was included on his 1993 album, Dancing the Blues.

To round out his first livestream of the year, Taj Mahal, Jon Cleary, and the Phantom Blues Band played “She Caught the Katy”. Though a Taj original from 1968’s Natch’l Blues, Taj admitted he was influenced by Steve Cropper’s guitar part from Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally”. Finishing the set, Taj thanked the audience “out there in Never, Neverland” and introduced another song that he used to dance to in his teenage years, the instrumental “Seven Eleven”.

Taj Mahal returns to the digital stage next Saturday, March 20th for the second episode of his livestream series. Next week’s episode will feature a wide array of performers including but not limited to Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, Amythyst Kiah, Annie Mack, Leyla McCalla, and Piedmont Bluz Acoustic Du among Taj Mahal’s Roots Rising Showcase. Be there or be square. Taj proves time and time again, that these are can’t miss musical evenings.

Setlist: Taj Mahal and The Phantom Blues Blues Band | UC Theatre | Berkeley, CA | 3/13/21

Set: Strut, Diddy Wah Diddy, EZ Rider, You Rascal You, Chevrolet, Rain from the Sky, Wild About My Lovin’, Diving Duck Blues, Queen Bee, Señor Blues, Goin’ Up to the Country, Paint my Mailbox Blue, Here in the Dark, Further on Down the Road, Fishing Blues, Loving in my Baby’s Eyes, The Hoochie Coochie Coo, She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride, Seven Eleven