Monday, March 06, 2017

It’s A Natural Born Thing- With Bluesman Taj Mahal In Mind-For Laura

It’s A Natural Born Thing- With Bluesman Taj Mahal In Mind-For Laura

From The Pen Of Bart Webber   

Sam Lowell and his long-time companion, Laura Perkins, had something of a standing question between them concerning seeing musical performers these days whom they had originally seen and admired in their younger days, those who were still alive if aging, and who were still putting on performances in public. The question: did, or did not, the performer have anything left from the old days or were they, the performers, and this was not an abstract question after seeing the painful decline of some artists which even kindness could not save, banking on nostalgic post-World War II baby-boomers now also having lost a step or two ignoring reality and give them a pass for old time sake. Worse losing all critical judgment and calling for encores.

That particular question had had taken on more urgency as the years have gone by since the number of performers from back in the day, from back in the 1950s classic age of rock and roll where only a few like Jerry Lee and a very wobbly Chuck Berry are still standing, from the folk minute of the 1960s where stalwarts like Dylan, Baez Rush and Paxton still play but that list is getting shorter by the year, from the seemingly eternal blues filled days where Muddy/Howlin’ Wolf/Mississippi John/James Cotton/Koko Taylor/Etta James and almost all the old names known through flipping through the bins at Cheapo’s in Central Square, Cambridge have passed on, whose music had bailed Sam out of more than one funk. Yeah, many had hung up their instruments or had passed to the great beyond had been mounting with alarming frequency as Sam and Laura have reached old age themselves, oops, matured.

That passing from the scene, and that nagging question about who did or did not have it now, was no small thing to the music crazed pair so Sam and Laura had over the previous several years been attentive when any of the venues they frequented had booked old time rock, folk or blues performers (the latter like James Montgomery mostly now those who had sat at the feet of the 1960s legends). Every time they did go to concert they would make the same comment, and would reflect as well on previous concerts to give a roll call of who or who did not make the cut. Sam insisted this analysis was no academic matter as recent concerts have attested to (although members of the academy, budding members itching to write that big definitive dissertation about the important message about teen angst and alienation in Jerry High School Confidential, who Dylan wrote Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowland for, and the truth of whether the blues ain’t nothing but a good woman on your mind that knock the known world on its head with insightful nuggets about such speculation are probably even as I write running through the possibilities).

Take, for example, what for Sam and Laura is the classic case of Bob Dylan and his seemingly endless tour (and now endless production of bootleg material placed in appropriately numbered CD containers, some very good, others which should have been left on the editing floor), the man, no matter what number of tours he feels he has to perform each year can no longer sing, no way. He gets a thumbs down on this question, no question, although only a fool would throw away their treasure trove of Dylania from the golden days from about 1960 to a little after 1970 since that is what will have to sustain us all in the slow nights ahead. Same thing was true several years ago about the late Etta James who had stolen the show at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1990s (from none other than the headliner Chuck Berry who was ancient even then) but who when last seen was something of an embarrassment. Another thumbs down. Going the other way recent concerts by a couple of members of the old Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, at Club Passim in Cambridge (the former Club 47 of blessed folk minute memory where Sam fled to when times were tough at home in high school and he needed that spot or when without dough the Hayes-Bickford to keep him going) showed that they both had increased their knowledge and respect for the American songbook and that they still had it (a concert a few years ago, also in Cambridge, by another member of that jug band, Maria Muldaur, solo, and later when the three united for a 50th anniversary of the band reunion showed she still had it as well). As did a concert a few years ago by the late Jesse Winchester.                 

Sam and Laura had jumped at the opportunity to see deep-voiced, kick ass bluesman Taj Mahal who was making one of his now less frequent stage appearances at the Rockport Music Hall up in that North Shore town by the Atlantic about forty miles from Boston, on the Sunday of the Patriot’s Day weekend (that Patriot’s Day, a Massachusetts state holiday of sorts, commemorating the time a bunch of determined American farmers and small tradesmen, many of whose forbears had been kicked out of Mother England under threat of the gallows, gave old John Bull all the hell he wanted out in Concord and Lexington).

On the afternoon of the concert as they were riding up the highway Sam kept thinking to himself the eternal question of whether old Taj still had the old magic that he had shown over a decade before when they had last seen him in Somerville where he had brought the house down. He mentioned that concern to Laura who added, having been through all the concert wars of the last decade or so with Sam and had observed the fit and halt going about their business, she hoped he was not too frail to hold the instruments. Of course once they got on the subject of who did and who did not still have it they had to run through the litany as well as acts that they hoped to see before the performers faded from view. That “game” got them through the hour’s ride as they hit the long one lane road into Rockport and the concert hall.         

Sam had wondered since this concert had been scheduled as a late afternoon concert (something that both he and Laura were happy about since as they joked the concert’s timing would not interrupt their normal bedtimes like most concerts, maybe not interrupt Taj’s sleep schedule either) whether the Shalin Liu Performance Center (the official name for the concert hall opened in an old converted and expanded storefront building in 2010) would have the ocean view windows in back of the stage open or closed. They had been to this venue a couple of times before so they knew that it was at the artist’s discretion whether that was done although with Sam’s personal maniacal love of the ocean he hoped that it would be open to give an appealing backdrop to the music inside. (Laura, generally indifferent to the ocean’s allure being a farm-bred woman, had no opinion on the matter.) As they entered the hall Sam noticed that the curtains were closed but since he and Laura had taken a short walk to the ocean before the show began he was not that bothered by the situation. (Later, as they were driving home, Sam laughed to himself that he was so transfixed by the performance that he hardly noticed the curtains were closed. Laughed too that old Taj had probably had the damn things closed because he intended some serious business not to be distracted by some silly ocean waves crashing tepidly to shore that day.)    

This Shalin Liu hall has many virtues beside the ocean view, small (about 300 seats), good views from all around, very good acoustics and lighting, and seats on the second floor that overlook the stage. For this concert Sam and Laura were seated in that overlook area and the first thing Sam noticed after sitting down was the bright shiny National Steel guitar, shades of old preacher/devil man Son House and his flailing away on Death Letter Blues and Bukka White, sweat pouring from every pore be-bopping away on Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues and Panama, Limited. He also noticed a slide guitar but did not remember that Taj played the slide as he racked his brain to try to remember any Taj songs he knew that included the slide. Noticed too that there was a banjo, piano, a couple of non-descript guitars, and a ukulele. Taj had come, armed and dangerous, a good sign.          

As the lights dimmed and the crowd hushed for the performance to start out came Taj, along with his drummer and lead guitarist, looking for all the world like the ghost of every bluesman than anybody could imagine coming out of Highway 61 in the Delta ready to make his bargain with the devil in order to be able to hit that high white note once in a while. Anybody who took his or her blues seriously that is. A big burly man (looking back at photographs from old albums at home later on the Internet Sam noticed that Taj, like a lot of us, had moved from the slender side to more robust as he aged), soft felt hat like a lot of Chicago blues guys wore, indoors or out, a big old blue flowered shirt and dangling from one ear the now obligatory pierced earring. Sam closed his eyes thinking about guys that had that same look, no, the ghost of guys now, guys like Little Walter, Magic, Slim, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Big Joe Williams, legends all and maybe Taj by his appearance was putting in his application to join the guys.    

And for the next almost two hours without the usual  intermission to disturb the flow of the music Taj made good on two things, yeah, as you probably already figured, the brother still had it, and, yes, he was making serious application to the pantheon, move over guys. Right out of the block came the National Steel and Sam whispered to Laura that this was going to be serious stuff as he covered Henry Thomas’ classic Fishing Blues, Good Morning Miss Brown, Corrina, Going Up To The Country and Paint My Mailbox Blue, John Henry. Later Taj worked on the piano, the uke, the non-descript guitars, and the banjo before coming back to the encore with the National Steel on his signature Lovin’ In My Baby’s Arms. The treat for Sam though was when Taj strapped that big old slide guitar on and covered the legendary slide guitar man Elmore James’ Television Mama. Whoa!

But the songs were just filler really once it was clear from the very first song that Taj was on fire that late afternoon, once they knew that they were going to take the ticket, and take ride. It was more the mood that Taj put Sam in, put him into that swaying, foot-tapping, finger-snapping feeling when he and the music mesh and the outside world for that duration fades. The mood too that hit Laura as he would watch her, a very prim lady most of the time, swaying dreamily with the beat, tapping the bannister in front of her, tapping those feet just like him. Oh, very heaven.

Later as they walked down the stairs after the performance was over the both automatically stated the obvious in their understated way-“yeah, old Taj still has it.” Case closed. Oh well, almost closed because as they were driving back to Boston Sam mentioned that that concert was one of the top ten they had ever seen. Laura agreed.             

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