The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall -- a venerable institution whose only signs of age rest in their progressively uncomfortable seats -- has some of the best acoustics on the planet‚ making it a natural for folk‚ classical‚ jazz and bluegrass acts that don't need the bells and whistles that have become second nature to today's concert experience. On the other hand‚ electric shows at the Hall are a balancing act that usually ends with the music skating on the edge of cacophony. And things didn't look good on this evening‚ starting when one of Taj Mahal's antique guitar amplifiers started making a noise that suggested the Jolly Green Giant was now endorsing Palin's Molten Moose-Chunk Chili.
Even though the sonic flatulence was finally quelled‚ Taj looked none too happy when he strode out onstage‚ dressed for the beach in beige cargo pants‚ a light grey short-sleeve shirt‚ white pork pie hat‚ and a gold chain with a marlin medallion. But like the cliché says‚ "Music hath charms‚ etc‚ etc." As a result‚ fifteen seconds into his opening number (a ripping instrumental straight outta the Windy City)‚ Mahal was smiling and bopping and shaking it up‚ much to the delight of the full house. And to the credit of the Hall's scrambling techs‚ the sound was perfect.
An instrumental is a pretty typical opening number at blues shows: It lets all the soloists have a quick warm-up spotlight before the star of the show takes the helm. The thing is‚ there was only one real soloist on this night‚ and that was Taj. Although bassist Bill Rich did get a feature section during the slinky audience-participation number "The 'Uh Huh' Blues‚" he and drummer Kester Smith were there to lay foundation‚ first and last. There was only one Alpha Dog on stage at the Hall; his name was Taj Mahal‚ and he left no doubt of his standing as he bounced from electric guitar to keyboards‚ and from acoustic guitar to banjo‚ and he played the ass off of each one.
"I see some of you got your white hair on tonight‚" Mahal grinned‚ his previous bad mood nothing but a memory as he switched from the opening instrumental to the loping shuffle "I Ain't Down No More." (Taj brought his white hair‚ too‚ though we only saw it on his upper lip.) His mood got even better as the show went on: He had just finished the folk-blues tune "Fishin' Blues" when an usher led a group of seven people to their seats down front. "I'm glad y'all got here‚" he told them‚ relief in his voice‚ and then rolled into a divine reading of "Corrina‚ Corrina."
The latter song prompted a hilarious monologue about the record company executives who vetoed releasing "Corinna" as a single in favor of something "more zippy!" (When the single tanked‚ the execs decided there must be something wrong with the music. "'Maybe there was something wrong with your choice‚'" he deadpanned.) Then Taj prefaced "Uh Huh" with a great bit about an American couple in Spain who went on vacation without realizing "nobody speaks American here!"
For all the goofing‚ there was a real spirit of joy to Taj Mahal's music‚ and much of it can be attributed to the love he has for his fans "allowing us to play the music as we see fit." The crowd gave that love back five-fold‚ especially on the set-closer "(Hey! Hey!) The Blues is All Right"‚ dancing and clapping and happily doing call-and-response with the big man‚ his bigger guitar sound‚ and a raspy voice coated with enough gravel to cover a driveway. Some things get better with age: Wine‚ cheese‚ classic cars‚ and Taj Mahal‚ and he burned it up on a cold night in Troy.