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Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012

Taj Mahal

The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 (Columbia/Legacy)

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Harlem-folkie-wonder-cum-Chicago-blues-badass Taj Mahal gets the legend treatment as Columbia honors the singer/songwriter/storyteller’s back pages with a hidden treasures/stuff-we-haven’t-made-money-on-yet release. Usually acolytes are the only ones to find much use for such hodgepodge assemblages, but a varied collection of styles, loose experimentations, overlong vamps and inspired live cuts is actually a neat metaphor for such a diverse musical career. Not many others could combine a banjo-fired nine-minute attack of “Shady Grove” next to a grits-and-grease-fueled, ’70s-bass-strut offering like “Yan-Nah Mama-Loo.” And not many others could make a life out of a weird combo of banjo, harmonica, New Orleans instrumentation, straight Chicago blues, traditional country blues, and a Harlem Renaissance-derived social consciousness. All this coming even before the man began to toy with Caribbean, African and other world influences.

The first disc features grooves-to-get-lost-in, impassioned acoustic tracks and maybe the sweetest version of “People Get Ready” ever waxed (here in instrumental form, called “Butter”). Disc 2, a live offering from Royal Albert Hall in 1970, is rough and rollicking, and at its best while spotlighting the masterful guitar leads of Jesse Ed Davis.

It’s a long, sweaty affair. Underlying it all, and no matter the kind of music he’s playing, when Mahal sings he comes on like the black Bob Dylan: unmannered, guttural, loose but bold, toying with beginnings and endings of lines, at once interpretive of the masters but unlike anything heard before. If you prefer your soul music with some gristle, and maybe fried in some “Bacon Fat,” then even the leftover scraps from early-era Taj is just the ticket. 
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