Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’ take blues “All Around the World” with TajMo

We’ve been fortunate to be able to tell you about several pretty terrific blues collaborations in recent weeks: first, a project reuniting guitarist John Primer and harmonica player Bob Corritore, and then a soulful recording from new friends Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter. But perhaps the most highly anticipated pairing of the spring has been that of accomplished singers and multi-instrumentalists Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ which, similar to Ledbetter and Welch, may have been helped along by an on-stage performance, in this case, a short set at the 2013 Crossroads Blues Festival at New York’s Madison Square Garden, during which the duo presented covers of the blues classics “Walking Blues”, “Diving Duck Blues” and “That’s Alright”.

While the resulting recording does see the multi-generational pair (who’ve since adopted the nickname of TajMo for their collaborative work) revisiting one of those songs — a slow, acoustic “Diving Duck Blues” (Sleepy John Estes) that’s so stripped down with just the duo’s guitars and vocals that you can sometimes hear Mahal breathing — as well as a few other bluesy tracks in the pleading opening original “Don’t Leave Me Here” and the bouncy country blues of “She Knows How to Rock Me” (Piano Red) that follows, TajMo (Concord Records) also offers up a number of very pleasant surprises. That includes terrific covers of both The Who’s “Squeeze Box” and John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change”, along with the catchy, memorable originals “All Around the World” and “Soul”.

Here’s a closer look at those half-dozen songs as well as the handful of others that make up this superb 11-track collection, which was self-produced by these two bluesmen who have long admired and influenced each other’s music.

Mahal, 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival

“Don’t Leave Me Here” – One of two tracks co-written by Mahal and Mo’, this is a dark, horns-laced, Bobby Rush-kind-of blues number that opens with some gritty harmonica from guest Billy Branch and Mahal’s trademark gruff vocals before Mo’s smooth voice helps take off some of that edge, reminding us that you can’t spell smooth without Mo’, who also handles electric guitar, keyboards, percussion, and co-arranging of the horns.

“She Knows How to Rock Me” – A bouncy, fun song that features these two giants of the genre trading on guitar (Mahal, an acoustic, and Mo’, a Resonator) and vocals, joined by just two other players on drums and bass, making this one so genuinely down-home that you can hear the creaking of their instruments and the floor beneath them!

“All Around the World” – An airy, groove-filled original, some might argue that this one captures the duo at their very best, offering uplifting messages of good news, positive change, and happy children singing, with Mahal and Mo’ exchanging vocals first by verse, then by line. It’s hard to get any more powerful than Mahal singing about the “powerful spirit up in the air”, with the pair backed by a robust band that includes some delightful horns, guests Colin Linden on mandolin and Sheila E. on percussion, and gospelish female harmony vocals, one of which happens to belong to Mo’s wife Robbie Brooks Moore.

“Om Sweet Om” – A soft, slow lesson in tenderness that features Lizz Wright on vocals, Joe Walsh on electric guitar, and Lee Oskar on harmonica, this original co-penned by Mo’ also finds the talented bluesman on bass, acoustic guitar, and organ.

“Shake Me in Your Arms” – A groovy track that sounds a lot like some of Mo’s standard stuff, this one again features Walsh (who Mahal encourages to “smoke that gi-tar”) on electric guitar (along with Mo’) and some jazzy horns at its end.

“That’s Who I Am” – Another co-written by Mo’, this breezy number offers both Mahal and Mo’ on Resonator guitar, with Mo’ also chipping in on wurlitzer, slide and electric guitar, and co-arranging of the horns, while Linden again contributes on mandolin.

2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival

“Diving Duck Blues” – The most stripped-down of the album’s tracks, featuring Mahal and Mo’ just as we saw them at the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival — on their own and sounding great. With Mahal on acoustic guitar and Mo’ on Resonator, you feel like you’ve been transported to the Delta and are right next to Mahal “sittin’ on my front porch, sunnin’ in my ol’ rockin’ chair”.

“Squeeze Box” – A breezy, zydeco variation of The Who classic that incorporates accordion and island sounds, this song has Walsh again joining Mo’ on electric guitar, Linden on guitar and mandolin, and Sheila E. on extensive percussion, including conga, cowbell, tambourine, springdrum, and vibraslap. Absolutely nothing beats Mahal’s low, coarse voice delivering the “in and out” portion of the song’s chorus, which is also nicely accented by the smooth backing vocals from Mo’s missus.

“Ain’t Nobody Talkin'” – A slow, dark number about a small town affair about which everyone knows but doesn’t speak, this patient Mo’ original features him on both acoustic and electric guitar, including an impressive solo midway through.

Mo’, 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival

“Soul” – Just try not to enjoy this second of the Mo’/Mahal co-writes, a liberating, world music presentation that mixes together ukulele and banjo from Mahal, electric, nylon string, and acoustic guitar from Mo’, a whole lot of great percussion both from Sheila E. (conga, cowbell, shaker, cymbal, and more) and Crystal Taliefero (udu, rainstick, congas, shaker), flute, horns, and terrific backing vocals, including some rather entertaining, Rafiki-like responses from Raphael Nduka Onwuzuruigbo. We’re pretty sure that this one will have folks partying from Morocco to “New Yorko”.

“Waiting on the World to Change” – This rootsy and tender closing number is another pretty stripped-down affair, with both Mahal and Mo’ on acoustic guitar and Mo’ also covering bass and handclaps. But it shines just as brightly as any other on the album, thanks to some soulful scatting from Mahal and a guest appearance from Bonnie Raitt on backing vocals.

Mahal and Mo’ both sing on all of the tracks, providing a nice bit of variety and plenty of glimpses into their distinct personalities. While we guess it’s possible that anyone expecting a largely Delta blues experience similar to the duo’s Crossroads performance or even more so along the lines of the traditional acoustic country blues we heard from Mahal on his recent Labor of Love album might initially be disappointed by the outcome of this album, we can’t imagine they’ll feel that way very long.

Sure, an album of traditional blues standards from these two masters would have been great — and maybe we’ll still hear that from them someday — but what we’ve been given in the upbeat TajMo is a true gift, helping to show the bluesmen’s individual and collective character, creativity, and fun sides — along with the mutual respect they have for one another — and accomplishing exactly what the pair set out to do, according to Mahal: “We wanted to do a real good record together, but we didn’t want to do the record that everyone expected us to do.”

The promo materials for the album call TajMo a “once-in-a-lifetime cross-generational collaboration”. Fortunately, the duo will be starting a world tour in support of the album later this month, giving us all a chance to hear them live and a bit more at length. And hopefully convincing the bluesmen and their record people that “once-in-a-lifetime” isn’t nearly enough for their blues fans all around the world.

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