I always enjoy double headliner billings and this one was one of the finest I have seen since The Zombies were paired with Love some 6 years ago. Tonight we had the legendary, world-wide blues of Taj Mahal matched with the multi-genred, Grammy winning veterans, Los Lobos. It was a large crowd at the 9:30 Club looking for a rootsy, danceable, swinging good time on a cold Monday night. With musicians like this, it was sure to be a successful night for all.
The Taj Mahal trio comes out with the 68 year-old master bluesman in charge of the vocals and guitar backed by 5-string electric bass and drums. He kicks it in with a real electric bite on his acoustic guitar. He is playing finger-style with plenty of thumb and the sound is closer to a fuzzy electric guitar. His licks are hot and Mahal theatrically has to shake his right hand off to the side to cool off. The crowd, of course, eats it up. Mahal introduces his vocals on the second song. I believe his main claim to fame is not vocal or guitar prowess, but his ability to balance both at still a high level of skill and use them with a palette of blues and world styles in a much wider manner than that of many bluesmen.
Tonight, his vocals are solid, not overwhelmingly gruff, but melodic enough and with heart. He has a guest saxophonist, Ron Holloway of DC, come on stage for a few numbers which lend even more variety to the sound. The bass player is solid and can really fill some quick runs when needed. The drummer is rock steady and holds it all together. Mahal switches guitars, but plays acoustic throughout the night. He flat picks some songs, often the steadier blues rockers. About half way through the set he heads to keyboard and plays some nice piano with an organ solo. He is back to guitar and plays a long and brilliant bit of Africa-blues called “Zanzibar”. Finally, he brings out a banjo which he uses both clawhammer and flat picking techniques on a couple of songs to close out a strong evening of blues variations. The crowd gave him a great ovation for this 75 minute set and the band earned it. They have to turn on the house music quickly or the demand for an encore would have continued for a while. But fear not, Taj Mahal fans, there is more to come.
Los Lobos came out with a line-up that featured three guitars, bass, drums, and keyboardist/saxophonist. But there would be plenty of other sounds used such as button-accordion, flute, percussion, congas, and more. This band has had steady success over the years and has come out with many fine albums. While not terribly familiar with their catalog, I did review their recent CD which I found to be excellent. Of course, they played material from that such as the title cut “Tin Can Trust” which had a steady rock groove that this band can really put out so well. The interesting thing about the set as a whole was how it built from a rather slow opener into better and better songs with so many subtle shifts in style. Yet with all the shifts in style, it was like walking up a lava field at Mauna Loa. There was always something building as you went forward over the intriguing terrain. Nothing out of control or crazy, just steady music growing and growing.
They mix Americana, traditional Mexican music, rock’n’roll from the 50s, 60s and beyond, folk, and blues into such a lovely set. There are some bands that come close to the component parts, but few that can put it together as a cohesive whole. I even detected some Southern-Cal psychedelic moves at times. In the rock songs, I almost felt the rhythm was too dull, but ultimately I think they made the right choice as a great droning groove was established for the guitarists to do their thing. At the ninety minute mark, they wished everyone a good evening, but of course there were encores to come.
The encores were a lot of fun and not too much of a surprise because it was hinted earlier that we might see Taj Mahal back. No surprise that these acts were enjoying each other’s company on this mini-tour, as they seem to be kindred spirits. Taj Mahal came back for some vocals and guitar with his trio also joining in on bass and congas. They ripped it up with “Born Under a Bad Sign” before doing some additional blues and Latino classics. I would wager to say that most people left happy. When you get two great acts worth seeing separately, together on one bill, it is a recipe for a great night out.