The Hidden Treasures is a somewhat redundant title for this Taj Mahal archive piece because his earliest recordings are a veritable treasure trove illustrating of the man's command of American blues. Still, the moniker of this two-cd set fully applies because over the course of the various studio recordings and a live performance, the tracks paint a portrait of a compelling musician who, whether he was being raucous or reflective has excelled in the role of songwriter, musician and bandleader.
Taj Mahal's authoritative grasp of the latter role becomes palpable when the music radiates, soul authority and precision as heard on the span of cuts with various lineups on the first half of The Hidden Treasures. Taj Mahal understands the beauty of the blues is its simplicity and so, on "Chainey Do" and "Yah Nah Mama-Loo," the groove he establishes sets the pace for the players, here including such estimable figures as his long-time guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and Southern music griot keyboardist Jim Dickinson (father of Luther and Cody in The North Mississippi Allstars). The frontman similarly sets the tone for an extended shuffle featuring horns as well as the keyboards of the Band's early co-producer John Simon: "You Ain't No Streetwalker" never flags during the course of its fourteen-plus minutes from the Bearsville Studio in Woodstock New York.
As the introductory title in an archival campaign covering Taj Mahal's entire early catalog, The Hidden Treasures becomes essential because there is little included here reappearing from previous collections and reissues, until "Ain't Gwine Whistle Dixie (No Mo)," and, then again, near the end of disc one, with the appearance of "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and "Shady Grove." This version of Bob Dylan's "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," for example, boasts the trademark tones of harmonica-- perhaps made prominent in the arrangement as a nod to the author? -- then goes on, around the repeating piano figures, to build feverish momentum, within the whole band.
While the variety of tracks such as that on disc one hints at the scope of Taj Mahal's ambition and influences, it's the complete concert appearing on disc two, from England's Royal Albert Hall in April 1970, that effectively confirms the blueprint of style he expanded upon as his career evolved. Moving from acapella numbers ("Runnin' by the Riverside") to an acoustic tune (the original "John, Ain't It Hard"), more familiar straight blues reaffirm the impression of a musician who could vividly communicate his understanding of style to his accompanists as well as his audience. The range of emotion spanning "Diving Duck Blues" and "Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day" is that of the blues itself: ecstasy and dread, as often as not intertwined as one.
Miles Mellough's essay in the accompanying cd booklet of The Hidden Treasures evinces equal parts wonder and insight into the virtues of this double disc set. As such it serves equally well as introduction to the set prior to listening, as well as an overview in the aftermath of hearing it. To his credit, the author never overreaches to 'explain' the source of this music's power, or the mysterious roleplaying that allowed Taj Mahal a mystical grasp of the blues at its most authentic.