But even for me, there are a few exceptions: performers who somehow imbue the blues form with an expansive social conscience that does not wallow in private misery, with an irrepressible joie de vivre and a lusty sense of humor that collectively uplift rather than depress the listener. Taj Mahal has always stood tall among these, so I am really delighted at the prospect that he will be playing the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) this Sunday, February 27.
The force of nature known today as Taj Mahal was born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in Harlem in 1942, and if you’ve ever seen this big, strapping, mirthful man in the flesh, you may find it hard to wrap your brain around the concept that he’s now pushing 70. He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts in a musical family – jazz on his father’s side, gospel on his mother’s – with roots both in the American South and the Caribbean. He started out playing piano (that huge handspan must’ve been a real advantage), but quickly proved an omnivorous sponge of practically every instrument and musical style that crossed his path.
Adopting his architectural new name, derived from a dream, Taj played R & B during his college days at U-Mass at Amherst, then split for the West Coast upon graduation. In 1964 he formed a band with then-also-unknown Ry Cooder and Jesse Ed Davis called the Rising Sons, whose gigs at the LA club Whisky à Go Go brought him into the orbit of many a giant from the worlds of Motown and the blues. The Sons cut an LP that didn’t see the light of day until decades later, and like many a band with three guitarists of comparably formidable talent, broke up rather quickly. But Taj Mahal’s eponymous first album in 1967 caught the ear of enough critics to launch his solo career, and the rest is not so much history as folklore.
Indeed, folklore might be described as the glue that binds Taj Mahal’s explorations together, for this is a guy who aspired from early on to become a sort of American griot, giving black listeners back some of their musical and storytelling traditions that had become submerged in lightweight pop music by the late 20th century. His songs, while clearly chosen to be rhythmic and danceable, also always contain great stories that reflect the historical and cultural experiences of people of color from all around the globe.
Taj was doing world music before the term was coined, recording with Jamaican reggae legends as early as 1974 and touring Africa five years before Paul Simon got the idea that became Graceland. And having made his home in Hawaii for more than a decade, he deserves a fair bit of the credit for piquing the recent resurgence of interest in slack-key guitar and other indigenous Hawaiian styles. So the blues really represent just one shade in his highly inclusive personal musical spectrum. He’s also known for his frequent performances, both onscreen and on soundtrack, in movies beginning with Sounder in 1972, and for an impressive track record of truly charming recordings for children.
More than four decades of cross-cultural musical cross-pollination have led to UPAC’s door this Sunday, and I would expect nothing less than the usual powerhouse of rootsy sound that invariably sends the audience home cheering and grinning from a Taj Mahal concert. It’s an opportunity not to be missed. The show starts at 7 p.m., and tickets run $56 for Golden Circle seating, $41 general admission and $36 for Bardavon members. They are available at the UPAC box office at 602 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; and through TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit www.bardavon.org.