First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2008, Volume 15, #10
Written by John Metzger
Wed October 29, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Forty years ago, as the blues scene was in the midst of a wild resurgence at the hands of a new generation of rock ínĎ roll fanatics, Taj Mahal quietly entered the fray with his self-titled debut, which featured material that had been penned years earlier by the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell, and Robert Johnson. Musically speaking, Mahal kept one foot planted firmly in the contemporary style of Cream, even as the other slipped through the cracks of time to settle amongst the rural hollers that emanated from the murky swampland of the Mississippi Delta. Over the course of his subsequent endeavors, Mahal gradually broadened his horizons, demonstrating that he wasnít as much of a purist as his initial foray seemed to indicate. As the blues began to recede from the forefront of popular culture, he began to elaborate further upon the genreís history as well as its future by using sounds that he had discovered around the globe, from Hawaii to Mali, to flavor his output.
Maestro is Mahalís first album in five years. It also is an attempt to summarize his journey and celebrate his legacy without becoming overtly retrospective. Unfortunately, it is only partially successful. Like all of his endeavors, Maestro is a thoroughly enjoyable affair, and although it features more than its share of special guests ó which range from Ben Harper and Jack Johnson to Ziggy Marley and Los Lobos ó none of them overshadow Mahal nor do they feel out of place. So wide-reaching is Mahalís oeuvre that he can move from the reggae-inflected groove of Black Man, Brown Man to the meshing of Led Zeppelin-esque rock and Stevie Wonder-inspired funk on Dust Me Down to the worldly atmosphere of Zanzibar, without missing a beat.
For all of the ground that is covered on Maestro, the setís biggest flaw is that it ultimately is rendered in a fashion that is as safe as its guests. From start to finish, the performances are solid, but it would have been preferable to hear more interaction between Mahal and his accompanists. While the backdrops change to suit the style of whomever has joined his party, his palsí contributions are too reverential. Mahal, in turn, adheres closely to his predetermined script. As a result, songs like TV Mama and Further On Down the Road falter because they fail to find anything new to say.
Strangely, then, Maestroís straight-ahead blues tunes are the cuts that fare best. Backed by the New Orleans Social Club, Mahal growls his way through I Can Make You Happy, and with his banjo in hand and the Phantom Blues Band, his long-running outfit, by his side, he masterfully explores the rustic textures of Slow Drag. In both cases, he regains the passion that is frustratingly absent from the bulk of the collection. In the end, Maestro will please many of Mahalís fans, and it also might bring a handful of new followers into the fold. The career-defining highlights, however, are few and far between.
Of Further Interest...
Maestro is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box