Taj Mahal: Labor of Love
In 1998, the backstory goes, Taj Mahal was on tour and a man named Tim Duffy, head of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, took to recording the blues great in various hotels along the way. About half of the songs featured Mahal solo; on the others, he was joined by an assortment of other MMRF-associated artists. None of it was released at the time; now it’s Mahal’s 47th album and first in four years. It’s delicious stuff. Mahal was miked up close, allowing every crisp nuance of his voice and guitar to be recorded cleanly and clearly; that guitar work, especially, is so in-your-face that you’ll feel like you’re sitting at the artist’s feet. Some of the material will be familiar to anyone who’s followed Taj Mahal, or at least his brand of acoustic blues, for any length of time. The opening number, “Stagger Lee,” is given a reverential traditional treatment, and “Fishin’ Blues,” regardless of how many times he’s cut it, still delights. Mahal takes lyrical and rhythmic liberties with “Walkin’ Blues,” presented here in a bare-bones rendition even starker than the familiar Robert Johnson version; and Mississippi John Hurt’s“My Creole Belle” is sweet and tasty. The duets, for the most part, are enjoyable as well—the slide guitar on “John Henry,” with Etta Baker, is sharp and sleek—but in the end, you may end up wishing that the entire set could’ve been just pure Taj and nothing but Taj.