We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Never a guy looking to be categorized (or fauned over), guitar man Taj Mahal has offered up a decent spread of blues, folk, and rock for close to 30 years without garnering a big-time following. But in 1996, with the release of the pop-packaged Phantom Blues, Taj (known to his mom as Henry St. Claire Fredericks) caught the attention of the heavy-spending adult-contemporary crowd for the first time. So with all that good money available from the boomers, what does Taj do for an encore? He follows with the extremely unpoppy An Evening of Acoustic Music, a soothing performance of blues standards and originals, some flavored by guest Howard Johnson’s tuba and penny whistle. Not exactly Bryan Adams. The collection opens with a satisfyingly moody “Stagger Lee,” which sounds more like Dylan’s downbeat folk version on World Gone Wrong than Lloyd Price’s 1959 shag-inspiring hit. Equally atmospheric is “Cake Walk Into Town,” with Johnson’s low-groan tuba eerily putting the listener in a steamy funeral march down Bourbon Street. But Taj’s self-penned tunes never come close to rivaling the songs he’s coveringRobert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Satisfied ‘N’ Tickled Too” are tough to topand they disrupt a good portion of the recording. Still, Taj’s soloing always seems to conjure a far-off optimism, and it’s damn near impossible to dislike an album featuring songs titled “Big Kneed Gal” and “Big Legged Mamas Are Back in Style Again.” Sean Daly