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Taj Mahal Shows Muscle as More Than Just a Soloist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taj Mahal thinks the blues-loving public’s idea of him has become a little distorted lately, which is ironic considering that few stage performers project as vivid an image.

Large and muscular under his trademark broad-brimmed hats, Mahal has long been one of the most accomplished and versatile performers on the acoustic blues circuit, switching between guitar and piano to deliver pumped-up solo concerts that reinvigorate venerable forms.

But Mahal notes that his solo blues act is only one specialty on an expansive menu of styles and activities. Since his album debut in 1967, Mahal (who early on substituted his fanciful stage name for his given one, Henry St. Clair Fredericks) has played alone and with bands, played blues the rural Southern way and the urban Northern way, explored the Caribbean music that is part of his family heritage and even played Hawaiian music in a band featuring five ukuleles.

On his two most recent albums, “Dancing the Blues” and the just-released “Phantom Blues,” he has fronted plugged-in bands while serving up a variety of edgy electric blues and horn-driven soul music and R&B.; The new one also features guest appearances by Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell.

Yet, what Mahal calls “the economic boogie"--the need to keep expenses down--has demanded that most of his 200-plus performances per year be solo gigs.

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“That’s sort of unfortunate, because everyone sort of missed the changes that happened, the direction I was going in,” the Los Angeles-based musician says. “I see myself as a composer who plays music and likes to play with other people, and not just as a solo artist.”

With that in mind, Mahal is debuting a new six-man touring band--which includes Raitt band alumni Tony Braunagel on drums and Johnnie Lee Schell on guitar--with dates Wednesday at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, Thursday at the Belly Up in Solana Beach and Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

Mahal, now 53, got his professional start during the early ‘60s on the active Cambridge, Mass., folk scene. In 1964 he moved to Santa Monica, where he hooked up with a teenage Ry Cooder in the band Rising Sons. Playing an eclectic mix of blues, folk and rock, they landed a deal with Columbia Records but never released an album. (A 22-track collection of the Rising Sons’ output finally emerged in 1992.) Columbia did keep Mahal as a solo artist, and he soon became known as a rarity within a rarity: a young black man who played acoustic blues, a field otherwise occupied by white musicians such as John Hammond and Dave Van Ronk.

Mahal says he wasn’t alone, though, as a ‘60s-generation black man who played the acoustic style. “There are so many people who didn’t get recorded, but who were around and didn’t have [the desire or opportunity] to go chase the brass ring.”

Now, having recently moved back to L.A. after 12 years based on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Mahal is looking to branch out in other ways. His resume already includes some movie soundtrack work (including the score for “Sounder”) and musical accompaniments for children’s recordings. He is collaborating with jazz saxophonist David Murray, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and others on a musical about Satchel Paige, the great baseball pitcher, set to open in Philadelphia in 1997.

“I’d like to get involved on another level. I don’t need the credits for playing the blues and paying the dues. I’ve already done it. There are some other things to do here--movies and scores and voice-overs. There’s a lot of business around town that I haven’t taken any advantage of. I have some talent that can be worked in that direction.”

* Taj Mahal plays Wednesday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., (213) 650-1451, 9 p.m., with Stephen Bruton opening, $16.50; Thursday at the Belly Up, 143 S. Cedros, Solana Beach, (619) 481-8140, 8 p.m., $15; and Friday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (714) 496-8930, 8 p.m., $19.50.


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