Taj Mahal | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Taj Mahal hasn't had the hardscrabble life of a stereotypical bluesman: born Henry Saint Claire Fredericks, he was raised in a middle-class family in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in the mid-60s earned a BA in agriculture and animal husbandry at UMass Amherst. But he spent his adolescence immersed in recordings by the likes of Son House and Howlin' Wolf, and in college he started his first band--a blues and R & B outfit called Taj Mahal & the Elektras. Through the years he's explored genres related to the blues, like zydeco and reggae, as well as the African-American folk styles from which the blues descended, and his most recent discs have leaned toward funkified soul. For these solo acoustic gigs, however, the best reference point is his 1996 concert album An Evening of Acoustic Music (Ruf). He's made no secret of his admiration for the griots of West Africa, and on this disc he employs many of their quasi-theatrical techniques: artfully paced stories that combine speech and song; mordantly funny asides that recall wise fools and tricksters like the spider Anansi; and a shape-shifting vocal timbre that allows him to play several characters in a single tune. He has a near encyclopedic command of folktales and traditional melodies from all points of the African diaspora, but he never resorts to the contrived artlessness of a folkie too concerned with "authenticity"--his music is sophisticated and aesthetically adventurous, reflecting both his broad knowledge and his emotional commitment. His accent on "Stagger Lee" sounds half Lousiana Creole, half Mississippi Delta--as if he's trying to simultaneously evoke every one of the storytellers who passed the tale down over the generations--and he modulates from an onlooker's terrified whisper to the outlaw's own gritty rasp. But his best showcase is "Crossing," a setting of Langston Hughes's lyrics for Zora Neale Hurston's play Mule Bone. His droning vocal melody, laid over a minor-key two-chord vamp, creates a powerful sense of desolation, or of a long, trying journey; his singing and his gently propulsive, bass-heavy guitar picking interweave so that the sound of each word, distinct from its meaning, is as important as a note. Saturday, January 12, 7 and 10 PM, and Sunday, January 13, 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. All three of these shows have sold out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.

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