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Mahal brews up new blend of blues

Dancing the Blues
Dancing the Blues
By Taj Mahal

Private Music / Windham Hill Records: 1993

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This review first appeared in the Summer 1994 edition of Blues Revue Quarterly magazine (now Blues Revue).

In 1972, Taj Mahal recorded a wonderful acoustic version of "Sweet Home Chicago" with the Pointer Sisters on backing vocals (on the out-of-print "Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff"). In 1993, he equals that recording with a duet of "Mockingbird" with Etta James. Their rollicking call-and-response is fresh and contemporary, while capturing the traditional spirit of this standard.

This album differs from some past Mahal outings in that it isn't stylistically focused. The material on "Dancing the Blues" ranges from the straight-ahead electric Chicago sound of "Blues Ain't Nothin'" through the New Orleans-influenced "Hard Way," the rocakbilly arrangement of Fats Domino's "I'm Ready," the R&B/boogie of "The Hoochi Coochi Coo" and the '60s Stax soul sound of "That's How STrong My Love Is."

Far from being a distraction, it is this stylistic breadth that makes this such an enjoyable album. Mahal is a master of American music in general, not just the blues, and his efforts to tackle these different arrangements all succeed.

Mahal's voice is strong and expressive, his guitar work less prominent than in the past but still imaginative. The backing band is not only talented, but brings a lot of experience in different American music forms. For most of the cuts, Bill Payne is on keyboards and Richie Hayward plays drums; both are longtime veterans of the eclectic rock band Little Feat, which incorporated everything from country-western to Motown in its sound. The Texacali Horns, featuring Austin icon Joe Sublet on sax, also weigh in with their Tex-Mex, rock and jazz influences.

There's really only one complaint against this outstanding effort, and that's crediting "Sitting on Top of the World" to Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett). The song was unquestionably written more than a half-century ago by Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks – and should be so credited.