“Still as Great Now as He Was Back Then!” Taj Mahal LIVE! at UCPAC
Although the weather outside is pushing 100 degrees, it’s comfortably cool inside the historic Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, NJ this Wednesday, July 20, 2022 evening as music lovers await a concert by multi-Grammy-Award-winning recording artist, Taj Mahal.
With a given name of Henry St. Claire Fredericks, Jr., Mahal was born in Harlem, NY, on May 17, 1942. Inspired at a young age by the work of Gandhi — along with a fascination with India and the idea of social tolerance — Henry Jr. eventually changed his name to Taj Mahal.
Growing up in Springfield, MA, Mahal’s mother was a gospel choir member and his father a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger who frequently hosted musicians from the Caribbean and Africa, in addition to the United States. Taj’s parents started him out with classical piano lessons, but he soon expanded his musical range to include study of the clarinet, trombone, and harmonica. He also had a real penchant for singing.
After his father was killed in an accident, his mother remarried and Taj began playing his stepfather’s guitar in his early teens, becoming serious when a guitarist from North Carolina moved in next door and taught him various styles of Delta and Chicago blues.
At the age of 16, Mahal began working on a local dairy farm and, by 19, became a foreman on the farm; as a result, he thought about pursuing a career in farming. Over the years, this ongoing passion led to him performing regularly at Farm Aid concerts.
In the early ‘60s, he went on to study agriculture at UMass Amherst, where he formed his band, The Elektras. After graduation, he headed west to Los Angeles and founded The Rising Sons, a six-piece group which included guitarist Ry Cooder. The band opened for numerous high-profile ‘60s-era artists including Otis Redding, the Temptations, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
Around the same time, Mahal also had the opportunity to work with various blues legends, notably Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Sleepy John Estes.
This diversity of musical experience served as the bedrock for Mahal’s first three recordings: 1967’s Taj Mahal, 1968’s The Natch’l Blues, and 1969’s Giant Step. These three seminal albums showed signs of the musical exploration that would become Mahal’s hallmark in years to come.
In the ‘70s, Mahal carved out a unique musical niche with a string of recordings including the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to the film, Sounder. In the ‘80s, he grounded himself in the music and culture of his new home in Hawaii, in addition to releasing three celebrated children’s albums. In the ‘90s, he released his Grammy-winning recording, Señor Blues, and in 2018, he recorded his Grammy-winning blues album, TajMo. Altogether, Mahal has been nominated for ten Grammy Awards.
Inside the beautiful Union County Performing Arts Center, the lights dim and the announcement is made, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Taj Mahal Quartet.” Taj Mahal and his group — Bill Rich on bass, Kester Smith on drums, and Bobby Ingano on guitars — enter dancing to recorded music as audience members clap, hoot, and holler.
Taking a seat amongst a collection of unique stringed instruments, Mahal welcomes the crowd and introduces his first song acknowledging, “This is a tune you might not know. It’s a story song about a judge, a judge’s wife, corn liquor, the ‘perpetrator,’ and a girl named Nel.” His bluesy and gravelly voice is low and laughing as he cries, “You know you doing time partner/‘Cause you have done the crime,” on “Slow Drag,” a blues number which features Mahal picking and strumming on the banjo.
The crowd cheers and Mahal and Co. launch into “Bring It With You When You Come,” a number with an island vibe which features Mahal smiling as he plays the ukulele. At the conclusion, Mahal reveals, “People — in 2026, that song will be 100 years old. The reason I like old music is because the stories don’t go away. As much as people change, the songs are still the same.”
Mahal’s voice cries out above the band on the bluesy “Done Changed My Way of Living,” and the crowd cheers when they recognize the intro to “Fishin’ Blues.” Audience members happily join in singing on the tune’s catchy “I’m a goin’ fishin’/Yes, I’m goin’ fishin’/And my baby goin’ fishin’ too” chorus on this country blues number which features a twangy Taj Mahal guitar solo.
The crowd whistles and cheers for Mahal’s slow bluesy cover version of The Grateful Dead’s “Corrina,” and Mahal has fun on the driving blues number, “Queen Bee,” where the audience sings along with him on the song’s appealing “Rock me to my soul” refrain.
Audience members cheer, and Mahal replies, “Thank you! How are we feeling?” before inquiring, “Anybody here know how to do the stroll?” Audience members clap along as Mahal strums hard and tasty on the 12/8 blues, “Bettye and Dupree,” where Bobby Ingano plays an inspired electric guitar solo and the crowd responds with avid applause.
Following the rhythmic folk tune, “Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eye,” which has music lovers singing along and dancing in the aisles to the easy groove, Mahal and Co. perform a reggae-style arrangement of “Stagger Lee,” where Mahal shakes his head as he spins a musical yarn on this classic story song.
On “Sailing into Walker’s Cay” Mahal plays a snippet of Jimi Hendrix’s ”Purple Haze” on his hollow-bodied electric guitar before asking the crowd to “ride the rhythm” by clapping on beats two and four to percussionist Kester Smith’s solid drumming.
Following the reggae-inspired “When I Feel the Sea Beneath My Soul,” Mahal and his quartet present a bluesy rendition of “C. C. Rider” where Bill Rich lays down a funky bass line and Mahal’s distorted electric guitar solo brings shrieks of joy from music lovers in the house who hang on to his every note.
Mahal exclaims, “Thank you so much everybody!” to which an audience member cries out, “You’re lifting my soul!” Mahal goes on to say, “We’re lucky to be the recipients of 100 years of recorded music thanks to the development of the microphone,” before explaining, “That’s when America started listening to itself.”
After introducing the members of his band, Mahal features guitarist Bobby Ingano on “Twilight in Hawaii.” The gorgeous strains of Ingano’s Hawaiian steel guitar swirl about the auditorium taking concertgoers on a musical journey. The musicians follow up with a dreamy rendition of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” which has Ingano’s steel guitar calling out as Rich’s bass and Smith’s drums keep the rhythm while Mahal drinks in the sounds as he strums along on his guitar.
Mahal counts off, “1, 2, 3, 4,” and the band launches into “Blackjack Davey,” a catchy tune with a reggae feel on which Mahal plays dobro. He and the band then follow up with, perhaps, the biggest surprise of the evening — a cover version of The Monkees’ “Take a Giant Step” where Mahal croons, “Come with me leave yesterday behind/And take a giant step outside your mind,” to all of the members of the crowd who react with a standing ovation.
Mahal talks about the essence of his music when he says, “It’s about humanity,” explaining, “I’m not trying to tell you anything you don’t know, but sometimes you have to say it.”
Mahal recites aloud the lyrics to his song, “Everybody is Somebody,” saying, “If a man is born in luxury, he is somebody/If a man is born in poverty, he is nobody/Everybody is somebody/Nobody is nobody.” After warning, “You will be asked to participate with your hands, your body, and your voice,” Mahal and Co. perform the rhythmic number with the crowd joining in and Mahal declaring, “Let me hear you! Come on, Jersey, fill up the room!”
Audience members respond by singing with gusto, waving their hands in the air, and dancing to the song’s appealing groove before ending with cheers and a standing ovation. The applause continues as Mahal and his musicians take a bow together before they collectively dance off the stage to sustained whistles and cheers.
As audience members make their way out of the UCPAC auditorium, we chat with several concertgoers who share their thoughts on tonight’s performance by Taj Mahal. Exclaims Rich from Plainfield, “It was so great to see Taj again! He put on a great show, as always. He is just so amazing, and his voice sounds incredible.” Paige from Elizabeth declares, “He’s very passionate! I liked his facial expressions and the way he moved his body to the music as he played it. He really seemed to be enjoying himself.” Evan from Woodbridge concurs, adding, “I especially loved the Hawaiian music — to me, that was so cool!”
Dorothy from Rahway contends, “It was an excellent concert — I loved it! His banjo playing was wonderful, and I especially liked when he played the old blues numbers.”
Dan from Rahway confesses, “Before tonight, I wasn’t familiar with Taj Mahal’s music and it turned out to be a really fun show. Now, I’d like to see even more shows here at UCPAC.” Janine from Rahway agrees, adding, “This is such a beautiful venue; I love everything about it.”
Geoffrey from Ringwood remarks, “I had a great time tonight! I loved the addition of the Hawaiian steel guitar and I especially loved the songs, ‘Corina’ and ‘Take a Giant Step,’” before noting, “I even brought my mother with me tonight. This is her first concert in a long time. She always had a rock and roll side to her and, like me, she had a great time tonight.” Exclaims Geoffrey’s mother, Carol from Ringwood, “I loved this show! I read about the concert and I was curious about it. I like all kinds of music and I was surprised at how much I liked Taj Mahal and his band,” prior to adding, “Plus, this theater is a jewel.”
Georgia from Jersey City acknowledges, “The last time I heard Taj Mahal, I was in college, and he sounded better than ever tonight,” before noting, “I also loved all the energy he brought to the show.” Lastly, we chat with Linda from Westfield who exclaims, “What a great concert — I loved it!” before recalling, “The last time I saw Taj Mahal was back in the 1970s, and I can assure you he’s still as great now as he was back then!”
To learn more about Taj Mahal, please go to tajblues.com. For information on future concerts at UCPAC — including Dionne Warwick on September 9, Josh Turner on October 20, Little River Band on October 29, Black Violin on November 10, and Mandy Patinkin on February 18, 2023 — please click on ucpac.org.