ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 15, 2001
By Steve Newton
When I ask famous musicians who they’ve been listening to, half the time they brush the question off, claiming that they’ve just been focusing on their own material. Other times you get people—like Taj Mahal—who like to name names. When I track the blues legend down on his way to a sound check in Lexington, Kentucky, he’s quick to boost his fellow artists. “Oh, there’s Eric Bibb, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Sam Bloom. Ben Harper. You know, John Hammond. Let me see who else I can think of that’s in there. Keb Mo’, you know. Corey Harris. And Shemekia Cope-land. I mean, there’s some real good youngsters out there. Hootie Stark. Neil ‘Big Daddy’ Patman. A lotta guys. John D. Oldman.”
When I tell the Brooklyn-born bluesman that it sounds like he’s been listening to a lot of music lately, it rankles him somewhat. “No, man,” he points out, “it’s not like somethin’ I do lately—this is what I’ve always been doin’. I mean, you gotta support the people out here who are playin’ the music, you know, so I listen as much as I play—if somebody’s doin’ something good.”
Mahal hasn’t had to go far to hear good musicians. For the last eight years he’s been surrounding himself with the Phantom Blues Band, which includes guitarist Denny Freeman (Jimmie Vaughan, Albert Collins), bassist Larry Fulcher (the Crusaders, Lonnie Brooks), drummer Tony Braunagel (John Lee Hooker, B.B. King), saxophonist Joe Sublett and trumpeter Darrell Leonard (aka the Texacali Horns), and keyboardist Mick Weaver (Otis Rush, Buddy Guy). Those players were no doubt instrumental in helping Mahal score Grammys for 1997’s Señor Blues and 2000’s Shoutin’ in Key. But when he visits Vancouver for a show at the Commodore on Monday (November 19), he’ll be performing solo. “I like playing music, man,” he stresses, “in whatever form it can be played, as long as it’s music. We did a lotta work settin’ this situation up with the band, so I’ve been spending my time doin’ that, but I did a lotta solo shows at the Commodore in the past. And that’s what everybody said they wanted to hear, so I’m gonna do that there.”
You can hardly complain about Mahal hitting the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar, because it’s in that stark environment that his arrangements of old blues gems like Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and Sleepy John Estes’s “Leaving Trunk” come alive. It would be nice if his Commodore gig also included his sweet rendition of the Reverend Gary Davis’s “Candy Man”, but he won’t guarantee its inclusion. “Mmmm, well…we’ll see if it rings up,” is all he says. When I ask him if there’s one tune that he’s particularly pleased to be playing these days—expecting him to pick one of his own well-known numbers, maybe “E-Z Rider” or “Texas Woman Blues”—he makes the question sound absurd. “Which tune am I enjoyin’? All of ’em! There’s no need to play ’em if you don’t like ’em.”
Before signing off, I have to ask the 60-ish Mahal something I’ve wondered about since first hearing his pseudonym. What drove the former Henry St. Clair Fredericks to name himself after one of the seven wonders of the world, anyway? His answer is simple. And perfect. “Dreams.”
I shoulda known.