March 21, 2017
"It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him." — Joseph Heller, "Catch 22"
I first arrived at "the blues" in its more primitive non-jazz form through my brother McGee and the countercultural coterie into which he introduced me upon my return from a three-year hitch in the Army.
California during the dawn of the mid-'60s flaunted a space-time comfort zone to die for and to say we gorged ourselves upon the available nutrients would be a gross understatement. Honing our familiarity with both the music and the behavioral augmentations of the day took place mainly in garages and bungalows with Hi-Fis and PAs. Just ask the neighbors.
The music of the era has all been chronicled before, including in this humble space, but every so often an adopted favorite son returns, warranting additional column inches. It was love at first sight. The first time I saw Taj Mahal, I fell madly in love with him.
Such a beautiful cat! There’s more musicality in his slouch than at a Julliard reunion.
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Logic would dictate that the night I first saw him stride onto the intimate stage of the Ash Grove down on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, he carried one of those classic open backed "old timey" banjos like the one Abigail Washburn performed upon at Deer Valley last summer.
However, it just as easily could have been his National Steel guitar, a longtime acoustic axe of choice during those years and as iconic a "slide" instrument as has ever felt blues with an attitude gliding up and down its neck.
By the time electric guitar-whiz Jesse Ed Davis and the rest of the band had joined him onstage, there was indeed a party going on. Something was happening. Or as Stanley Crouch would put it a few decades later in the opening lines of some compilation liner notes:
" When this Columbia recording entitled 'Taj Mahal' appeared, it indicated the power of an undeclared movement that had arrived from no place anyone would have predicted."
That's exactly how it felt at the time. Taj was a monster! He was on to something. He could do no wrong.
Taj was also ubiquitous. He was everywhere at once. I'd move to Utah and there he'd be holding court in a corner chair at "Mama Eddie's Right On Beanery" down on State Street in Salt Lake City.
Then word would reach me that he had relocated to the north shore of Kauai and that his wife and kids were now part of my sister's bicycle posse and my nieces' school bands. The "Hula Blues Band" he formed and with whom he recorded would later bring it all back home with shows down at Red Butte Garden.
What first brought Taj into my consciousness must have been that classic photo of him in the company of the beautiful Mississippi John Hurt at an early Newport Folk Festival. It became an album cover and remains plastered on a winding wall within my memory lobes.
Then there's the time he headlined in Park City at Main Street's Cowboy Bar with only his guitar and a piano they hauled in for the occasion. No band. No entourage. No guest performers. Just Taj and a house packed to the rafters in homage to his place in the enormity and blessedness of our musical culture.
There were absolutely no vacancies on the dance floor that night. Taj and his muse didn't need no stinkin' badges!
The same when he became a last-minute replacement opening-act for Stevie Ray Vaughan at Deer Valley back in the day. Arriving with nothing more than a couple of guitars and a mindful of blues, Taj, as a solo act, turned the Stevie Ray crowd completely on its head.
Such a beautiful cat! There's more musicality in his slouch than at a Julliard reunion. Whenever I hear or read the word 'ethnomusicology,' Taj immediately comes to mind. An educator by example, he radiates the blues.
From the Ash Grove in LA back in the day to the Eccles Center this upcoming Saturday night, this is one dude whose music never gets old. Taj Mahal is joy personified! Can't wait! Thanks once again, Park City Institute.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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