Friday, 4 September 2015

"Taj Mahal" by TAJ MAHAL (2000 Columbia/Legacy CD - Bob Irwin and Vic Anesini Remasters – Part of the “Columbia High Fidelity “360 Sound” Series” of CD Reissues) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...Wake Up Mama...Turn Your Lamp Down Low..."

I've always had a soft spot for the Blues of Henry Fredericks from New York’s Harlem (Taj Mahal to you and I) - and his stunning 1968 self-titled "Taj Mahal" debut album still ranks in my books as one of the all-time-greats. Like "Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac" (1968), John Mayall's "Blues From Lauren Canyon" (1968), Johnny Winter's "Second Winter" (1969) or Shuggie Otis' 1970 debut album "Here Comes Shuggie Otis" - "Taj Mahal" is the kind of good-time hair-shaking bum-waddling Blues-Rock that I adore. And to me it still sounds as fresh as a daisy - with maybe less hair and a wee bit of a middle-aged droop around the tum tum (not mine you understand). Here are the 'Leaving Trunk' and 'E Z Rider' details…

UK released September 2000 on Sony/Columbia/Legacy COL 498173 2 (Barcode 5099749817326) - this CD is a straightforward transfer of his debut LP and plays out as follows (33:00 minutes):

1. Leaving Trunk
2. Statesboro Blues
3. Checkin' Up On My Baby
4. Everybody's Got To Change Sometime
5. E Z Rider [Side 2]
6. Dust My Broom
7. Diving Duck Blues
8. The Celebrated Walkin' Blues
Tracks 1 to 8 are his debut album "Taj Mahal" - released February 1968 in the USA on Columbia CL 2779 (Mono) and CS 9579 (Stereo) and in the UK on Direction 8-63279 (Mono) and S 8-63279 (Stereo). The Stereo mix is used in this 2000 remaster and there are no bonus tracks.

The 12-page booklet is a nicely substantial affair reproducing the album’s original rear artwork and liner notes by Tom Nolan on the inner pages. There is then a short essay on Taj Mahal by Stanley Crouch, album and reissue credits – all peppered with a bunch of outtake photos from the recording sessions.

Remastered for CD by the dynamic duo of BOB IRWIN and VIC ANESINI in 2000 and put out as part of the “Columbia High Fidelity “360 Sound” Series” - these are Audio Engineer names I actively seek out. Anesini alone has handled hugely prestigious catalogues like Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel, Carole King, Janis Joplin, Hall & Oates, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Jayhawks, Mott The Hoople, Santana and many more. This CD reissue is part of Sony's "Columbia High Fidelity "360 Sound" Series" – a logo along the spine of the under inlay. When Columbia started issuing their 'Stereo' LPs in the USA in the 60ts they used the "360 Sound" logo on the album's artwork and label as a part of their selling point – best sound – all around - etc. I'm not sure anyone has noticed this CD logo down the spine inlay - but everyone knows that the 'Legacy' moniker on a CD is a mark of their remastering quality. Whatever way you look at it – this CD rocks like a mother and in the very best way.

Taj Mahal’s debut album is the stuff of Blues-Rock legend - an absolute gem. Recorded in August 1967 (released early 1968) and Produced by Dave Rubinson - the band consists of guitarists Ry Cooder (credited as Ryland P Cooder) and Jesse Edwin Davis with veterans James Thomas on Bass and Charles Blackwell on Drums. Taj sang all the tunes and mainly stuck to harp playing except on the brilliant 8-minutes of "The Celebrated Walkin' Blues" where he puts in some great slide-guitar work. Other guests included Bill Boatman on Rhythm Guitar and Sanford Konikoff on Drums.

It opens with a blaster – a cover of a Sleep John Estes classic called "Leaving Trunk" where our hero had better leave before his lady's husband gets home. Immediately you're in the presence of a huge warbling Harmonica and those chucky flicking guitars – it's a fantastic updating of old world Blues – sort of like what Paul Butterfield's band did on Elektra Records a few years earlier (see my review of his "Original Album Classics" 5CD Mini Box Set). Blind Willie McTell provides us with the Boogie of "Statesboro Blues" where Taj wants his woman to "...wake up mama...turn your lamp down low..." Continuing in that wicked rollicking vein – we get another shuffling winner in the shape of "Checkin' Up On My Baby" written by another great Harmonica warbler Taj deeply admired - Chess Records' Sonny Boy Williamson. The perfection of Side 1 ends with another nugget from the pen of Sleepy John Estes - "Everybody's Got To Change Sometime". Once again the audio is magnificent – loud and ballsy but not too trebled to ruin it. Direction Records tried it as a UK 45 on Direction 58-3547 with "Statesboro Blues" as the flipside – but despite the strength of both sides – no one seemed to notice in early 1968.

Side 2 opens with the only Taj Mahal original on the album "E Z Rider" which Direction tried as a 2nd UK 7" single with "You Don't Miss Your Water" as its flipside (Direction 58-4044) but again it failed to raise a ripple. The band counts in that slide-guitar barroom slasher from Elmore James "Dust My Broom" which oddly enough is good only – more workmanlike than great. Things pick up with "Diving Duck Blues" again from the fertile pen of Sleepy John Estes where an inebriated Estes tells us that "...if a river was whiskey...I'd dive to the bottom and never come up..." (thirsty and dangerous work). But it ends on a tour-de-force – the near nine-minute Slow Blues of "The Celebrated Walkin' Blues". It's a Traditional arranged by Taj and it captures everything that was great about his house band – that chugging Cooder Guitar – sweetly complimentary Mandolin plucking while he warbles on the Harp inbetween pleading lyrics. It's brilliant - and by the time the tune hits that Rhythm Section entry about 2:20 mnutes – you’re won over. Great stuff...

Niggles - the original album was also issued in MONO - and as you can see from the playing time provided above - it could easily have been fit on here as a first - but alas. There was a non-album single in 1967 on Columbia 4-44051 with "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" b/w "Let The Good Times Roll" – again both AWOL when there was loads of room. I would also love to one day see a LEGACY DOUBLE DELUXE of this fantastic debut - there must be some outakes in storage somewhere - and live sets with that stellar band...

Selling for less than four quid in most places – a Blues Rock barnstormer you need on your shelf and in your Stereo...all '360' degrees of it...

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