Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo are two great musicians that have trodden their own unique paths in the wonderful world of blues. Although both started out their careers playing nothin' but the blues, they quickly began to assimilate influences from a variety of musical genres "all around the world" (to steal a quote from a catchy song off of their new collaborative album) to create their own signature sounds that broaden the scope of their blues. For many people, Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo were among their earliest forays into the blues and they continue to delight audiences worldwide with amazing live performances and widely acclaimed albums. However, despite their common roots and styles, Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo surprisingly have not collaborated on a full-length release until this year's TajMo, released on Concord Records. Combining their unique voices and talents, they recorded this 11-song album.
To be honest, I wasn't sure what a collaboration between these two artists, who are renowned for their eclectic styles, would sound like. Was it going to be a throwback to their earliest blues roots? Were they going to perform some modern funky blues? Were there going to be any attempts at pop-crossover music? The short answer is that it is all of the above...
For a major label release from two important and popular artists in the blues world, TajMo comes up a little short for me in some ways. Don't get me wrong, I very much enjoy this album -- there's excellent music to be heard here, and overall the album has been a great soundtrack for the summer of 2017. That being said, maybe I was expecting to hear something different, given their unique styles. To begin with, the sound quality of the entire release is very clean, almost a little too bright and processed-sounding at times. While that certainly will ensure its broader appeal to listeners who may not be accustomed to the somewhat rougher sound quality of older blues recordings (the likes of which inspired Taj and Keb'), it does make for an album that goes by smoothly without leaving much of an impression on first listen(s). Classic rock guitarist Joe Walsh makes several guest appearances throughout, but stripped of much of his gritty overdriven guitar tone, you could be forgiven for not noticing his presence. One of my favourite tracks, "Diving Duck Blues", captures more of what I was expecting from this album; it sounds like Taj and Keb' relaxing on a back porch with their acoustic guitars, playing some old-school country blues seemingly unaware of a recording machine running nearby (which even captures the sound of them breathing while playing!). It sounds both relaxed and intense at the same time. I would have liked for the rest of the album to be of a similar style, but instead, it's a smorgasbord of different styles that can seem a bit disjointed to listen to in one sitting.
One thing I do love about this album, however, is the positive message that many of the songs contain. I often get questions from people who are not as familiar with the blues as to why I love such "depressing" music. While it is true that the term "blues" implies a rough time in life, by listening to and/or singing the blues, you can learn from the experiences of others, share your own experiences, and make yourself feel better in the process. Many of the songs on TajMo embody that spirit, singing about the blues but spinning things in a more positive light. Even with its pop sheen, the lyrics and melody of "All Around The World" foster a sense of hope at times when the future seems uncertain. Similarly, "Om Sweet Om", featuring Lizz Wright, promotes a warm universal message over a gentle, yet soulful musical bed.
The album is very diverse and eclectic musically. Several songs are more in the flavour of contemporary blues with funk/R&B overtones, including the Chicago-styled opener "Don't Leave Me Here" (which extolls the Mississippi Delta), "That's Who I Am", and "Ain't Nobody Talking". There are some acoustic tracks, which are among my favourites, including the aforementioned "Diving Duck Blues" and the rhythmic "She Knows How To Rock Me". TajMo even includes two pop-rock covers: a somewhat playful rendition of The Who's "Squeeze Box" and a well-intentioned though musically uninspired version of "Waiting On The World To Change" (originally by John Mayer). However, "Soul" throws in a musical wild card. Set to an Afrobeat arrangement reminiscent of Paul Simon's Graceland album, the song features Taj and Keb' name-checking various places in the world, underlining a feature common to every one of them: they all got soul! It's a catchy and fun tune that promotes a sense of happiness and unity, even at a time when tensions between cultures and communities has been running high.
Even though I had different expectations for TajMo, what they came up with is nevertheless enjoyable. It's a pleasurable, if at times slight, soundtrack custom made for both warm summer afternoons and cold, snowy days by two warm and charismatic blues legends.
Tune into CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday morning on CJSR to hear tracks from TajMo and other new blues releases.