Taj Mahal, a commanding presence backed by the six piece Phantom Blues Band, burst onto the Bank of America Pavilion stage on a muggy August 15th and took the place by a storm. Taj is a versatile and positive spirit made flesh, endowed with a gravelly voice that plumbs the depths of the blues.
He began his set with an instrumental, "Honky Tonk," and then he launched into a Bo Diddley number from the 1950s, "Diddy Wah Diddy." He told the audience he knew it was written expressly about Boston. "It ain't no town and it ain't no city," Taj crooned, "but they love me down in Diddy Wah Ditty."
Yes, the audience in "Bean City," as Taj calls Boston, truly does love this Massachusetts native, and they proved it during the three-hour concert presented by Live Nation. Taj hopped around the musical canon and was later joined co-headliner Bonnie Raitt (who also has Massachusetts roots) in several crowd-pleasing numbers that rocked the house.
The tour, titled "BonTaj Roulet," a combination of their two names and a twist on "laissez les bon temps roulez" ("let the good times roll") kicked off with two concerts in Massachusetts. It will tour nationally through to the end of next month, with the last concert set for Sept. 16 in Oakland, Calif., near where both the musicians are based.
It is a tour that has been years in the planning, Bonnie Raitt announced later, representing a friendship that was fostered at Club 47 in Cambridge when Bonnie was an undergraduate enrolled in African studies at Harvard. Taj Mahal, like Bonnie Raitt, had other ambitions then when he was enrolled at UMass-Amherst (she's 58 and he's 67), but music took hold of them both and the rest is history.
They can crank it up and tone it down, depending on their moods; they can move from guitar to piano with ease; they can play a ragtime number and then shift 180 degrees to a gospel-infused piece or slink on into a searing, smoky ballad. And all along, the message they communicate is to live fully and with gusto, to get through the hard times, to embrace the collective good will of good people, and to endure.
"I know these are hard times, but you got to feel good and we sure do know how to make you feel good," Bonnie Raitt said from the stage.
Taj echoed this sentiment when he told the audience, "The blues is like group therapy."
In song after song, "Fishing Blues," "Sweet as a Honey Bee," "Send Out Blues," and "Real Good Thing," Taj delivered, dancing, prancing onstage, picking up his banjo and plunking out a blues riff, or growling lowdown and nasty while swiveling his hips and rolling his eyes. There is no end to his exquisite enjoyment of music, and it rippled through the audience with electricty.
Bonnie Raitt did her own set, accompanied by several of the Phantom Blues Band and her longtime accompanist George Marinelli on guitar, who traded guitar licks. One particularly moving moment came during her rendition of John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," which she first recorded with Prine on a live album of his dating from the 1980s. She stood alone on stage with her acoustic guitar and sang a capella; when the band broke in, she delivered this ballad about dashed hopes with pathos.
"There's flies in the kitchen," she sang in the closing verse from "Angels," "I can hear them a-buzzing. I ain't done nothing since I woke up today. How in the world can a person go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?"
The blues is about loss, about psychic angst, about loneliness and the longing for love, and that's the message of Prine's song. And it is also the message in the Willie Dixon song, "Built for Comfort," which promises sexual fulfillment only when lovers get it on in the slow groove, which the headliners performed with warmth and sass and attitude, sending the audience dancing to its feet.
The positive message these performers bring to roots/blues/jazz/rock songs is inspirational. Without preaching, the songs they sang spoke of transcendence over hard times, personal pain and loss, and they delivered it with an infectious love of life.