One of the blues’ great maverick voices, on the face of it Taj Mahal has simply done what many graduates of the 60s blues boom have done: married the genre with other popular forms. But few have branched out in quite such a startlingly original way as Henry St Clair Fredericks Jr. And if he is widely hailed as one of the first bluesmen to incorporate world music into his sound, his move to the distinctly un-bluesy Pacific island of Hawaii in 1981 has made for some even more unlikely musical hybrids.
This performance from February 2015 in Taj’s home state typifies the sounds he has come to call his own. Hopscotching from hula-laced blues to sun-soaked, folky reggae, while stopping to doff his cap to jazz, country, calypso and whatever styles take his fancy, it’s the kind of freewheeling show he specialises in.
And while this is far from a greatest hits set (no She Caught The Katy, for instance), he doesn’t shy away from his blues roots, beginning the show with Good Morning Miss Brown. Yet while this 1972 cut has the familiar 12-bar structure, in this environment it’s drenched in that unmistakably Hawaiian combination of ukulele and steel guitar. Then, as if to set his genre-hopping stall out early, we’re treated to Coconut Man, a desert island reimagining of Toots & The Maytals’ ska classic Monkey Man. It’s a superb blend of hula, blues and reggae and Taj is in great voice, his weathered growl full of vim and mischief.
It’s not long before we’re back in bluesier waters with arguably his best-known song. Fishin’ Blues, he says, “sealed my fate”, and there’s an irresistible touch of Cab Calloway mischief in his rascally rasp and scat-happy delivery. Gonna Move Up To The Country (Paint My Mailbox Blue) is another superbly laid-back rendition of one of his vintage cuts, and even when he follows such reliable fare with Hawaiian folk or the country banjo instrumental 5 String Banjo, it all sounds perfectly fitting in the party atmosphere the band create. It’s as if you’ve stumbled in on a surreal Pacific wedding reception where a mad uncle has hijacked the band and stolen the show.
The encores seem to go on longer than the main set, by which time we realise that Taj’s ‘hula blues’ style is pretty much a licence to play whatever he likes. When they cover Santo & Johnny’s classic instrumental Sleep Walk, it sounds tailor-made for the hula blues treatment. And even if the easy- listening, playful reggae of Blackjack Davey and Johnny Too Bad might cloy on some rock-hungry palates, like pretty much everything here, it’s hard not to warm to them, along with the man behind the mic.