New York sounds: American roots

Martin Longley pursues six-string troubadour action in Manhattan and Brooklyn…

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal Trio
The Allen Room

If an audience is in the mood for psychoanalysis, they can always attend a Taj Mahal performance. Perhaps thrown by the intimate nature of an Allen Room appearance, this veteran bluesmaster was in an enquiring, self-conscious mood for this first of the weekend’s four shows in the Lincoln Center venue. He peppered his relatively short (though very pointed) set with thoughts on the audience’s expectations. After blowing everyone away with an initial run of stoking electric guitar-loaded blues chuggers, Mister Mahal almost apologised that all present had to sit through this sequence before getting to the ostensibly more popular semi-acoustic material from his peak period of commercial success. We’re talking “Corrina” and “Fishin’ Blues” in particular.

It’s not so widely mentioned that Mahal was actually born in Harlem, so this was almost a homecoming gig. Given that the 7.30pm crowd had to clear the room for the 9.30pm influx, Mahal’s performance was a model of concise attack, with no possibility for the attention to momentarily wander. There was no chance of any dragging feet. Apart from when the man himself tripped over his guitar lead, then instantly turned this mishap into a backwards-wiggling dance move. Sheer professionalism and fleet footwork combined! Speaking of movement, Mahal seemed to be puzzled by the all-seated settings that so often provide an environment for the blues nowadays. He was looking, misty-eyed, back to the old days of beer-soaked roadhouses, gently mocking the studious, analytical connoisseur-ship so often applied to the music. But still, he was admitting that if folks rate an experience exceedingly highly, they might just want to sit and savour it rather than simply quaff’n’hoof.

Your scribe had previously caught Mahal in just such an all-standing joint, and also in much larger concert halls, so it was indeed a luxury to view his art close-up, against that famed Allen Room backdrop of Central Park. This was proof that an electric guitar can still be loaded with tension, excitement and power, even though relatively quiet compared with the more traditional blues haunt of B.B. King’s Blues Club, where volume is consistently mammoth. That’s great, in its own way, but here was the chance to confirm that music can still seethe if leashed with a lower amplification. It’s all in the controlled distortion, and in Mahal’s low-growled post-Howlin’ Wolf vocalisations. Bill Rich’s electric bass was also notable for its speaker-bustin’ strength, his amplifier cabinet expanding and contracting, stressed to the limit. This was the best bass sound I’ve heard in many months, but still delivered with a reasonably contained volume level. Sinewy, entwined lines, always percussively nimble. Poor Kester Smith! His drums weren’t doing any sonic damage, but his rhythms were suitably limber…

Mahal has the advantage over most of his contemporaries, being a multi-instrumental songwriter as well as a wily wit in-between the songs. He opened on electric guitar, switched to semi-acoustic, and then briefly sat at the piano-organ keyboard. He even brandished a banjo, joking about that as well. Of course, Mahal is attuned to a multitude of global musics, and his “Zanzibar” number was inspired by his visit to that island, in the wake of a cross-Africa expedition. It sounds more like a Malian tune, but our forty-year-veteran has always compiled multiple ethnic styles into a series of pan-global distillations. This is not to say that he lacks an innate understanding of these forms. Quite the opposite, in fact. He inhales all of this music, deeply and profoundly.

How is it to be female, sitting and listening to this bluesman? Nearly all of the songs are about girls and women, and now even grandmothers (the first tight-jeaned generation of such beings, as our troubadour pointed out). Boogie woogie-ing with these fair creatures is always uppermost in Mahal’s mind. All night long! It’s just a shame that he almost seemed to feel guilty about playing the fully-rollin’ blues on his electric guitar. It would surely have been better for Mahal to climax the set with another run of these smoking songs, instead of resolutely sticking with his phased semi-acoustic guitar, however distinctive that signature sound.

Raúl Malo & Michael Guerra
City Winery

It was instructive to wing directly from Taj Mahal’s gig, straight down to SoHo’s City Winery, to witness a very different kind of troubadour. Raúl Malo gained fame as the frontman for The Mavericks, who were best described as an off-kilter country combo. Since travelling along the lonesome highway for the last decade, Malo’s albums have tended to keep the roots, but have burrowed further into soil from another land. Even though Malo’s own background is in Cuban Florida, he’s gradually become an honorary Mexican. Now his set-list is still countrified, but it’s a different sort of country. This is underlined by the presence of his sole accompanist Michael Guerra, whose trilling, centipedal accordion lines infuse most of the songs with a tequila slug, even if they’re not ostensibly that way inclined.

My initial reaction was a mild disappointment that the retro-kitsch, Tijuana-surf, exotica organ surging of the new Sinners & Saints album would not be recreated in full. A duo set-up presents an immediate challenge in terms of variety, pacing and delivery of songs that are often familiar in a differing surround. In fact, this did become something of a problem once the set hit two hours, and the encores kept on coming, one of them briefly featuring singer/guitarist Seth Walker, the night’s opening act. And that was after I’d already missed the first ten minutes or so of the set. This was a marathon of hardcore entertainment! When choruses follow verses (and Malo doesn’t specialise in guitar solos), then an accordion break, there’s only so much mileage in this sequence, particularly over such a lengthy stretch. Nevertheless, the pair did quite well under the circumstances. It was mainly the final fling of endless encores that dragged the proceedings down, but even this contained periodic gems.

The sold out assemblage was an inflamed rabble, particularly Malo’s raunchy posse of female admirers. He eventually snapped, for an instant, hushing them with a sudden sibilance. Malo does surely encourage such attention, though, with his presumably deliberately cheesy image and hopefully slightly ironic showbiz patter. Yes, this is a man who simultaneously prompts a wry smile, at the same time as managing to sincerely cultivate a sense of sentimental south-of-the-border romance. A tough task indeed!

Of course, Malo’s own material shines, whether it’s excavated Mavericks ditties or freshly minted instant classics from the new disc, but he’s also adept at lending clichéd material new meaning. Yes, “Guantanamera” and “Bésame Mucho” might be completely predictable in this setting, but the duo inflated the sagging flesh of these songs with fresh breath. The best cover of all was an encore rendering of “Sweet Dreams” (mostly identified with Patsy Cline), delivered alone by Malo, with a stark emotional exposure. Even the baying fan factions were silenced by this one.

Marc Ribot
Rose Live Music

New York guitarist Marc Ribot’s new Really The Blues project is not really about the blues, but more concerned with soul, funk and general retro-grooving. For this quartet, his always-stinging guitar solos are fixed in a Curtis Mayfield zone than an Albert King corner. Joined by vibraphonist Bill Ware, bassman Brad Jones and drummer E. J. Rodriguez, this is a gathering that features two members of Bobby Previte’s New Bump, themselves similarly aligned to the power of the pulse. As if Ribot doesn’t have enough combo conceptions running! But now he has another one, and they always manage to be gripping, in their completely different ways.

Rose Live Music, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a slightly obscure haunt that devotes itself to jazz, soul, funk, electronica, and a variety of global sounds. The word spread recently that this valued joint was closing, but now it seems that they’re going to remain open for music and food (there’s a restaurant downstairs) on the weekends. The Rose’s rear music room is petite, and once its few tables are filled, the audience has to cram into the doorway. A swift worming allowed your scribe to adhere himself to the wall, just behind Ware, lending a tip of the mix towards the vibes, manifested as a more physical, powerful force than usual. This was partly due to Ware’s more gutsy approach to the instrument, and his periodic switching of effects to impart tones more befitting of an electric guitar or Fender Rhodes keyboard.

Ribot wasn’t as loud as usual, but his frequent solos were still spitting venom, occasionally veering from organic soulfulness into areas of improvisatory extremity. Ribot can never resist letting loose! These stylings seamlessly inserted themselves into the foursome’s modernised groove constructions. Pacing and texture were paramount, as the 90 minute (more, with encores) set passed through phases of tension and release, quietness and explosiveness, funk and free-form, sparseness and busyness. The quartet sounded completely unified for this new teaming, ready to spread a unheard message amongst Ribot’s acolytes, and doubtless beyond, into yet another potentially wider audience.