Appreciative fans shouted birthday greetings to Taj Mahal early Thursday morning at Knuckleheads. The blues musician born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks Jr. on May 17, 1942, had already entertained an audience of about 500 for almost two hours when he officially became a septuagenarian at midnight.
From the back of the sprawling roadhouse, Mahal could have passed for a man in his 40s. His powerful performance displayed an ageless vitality and his voice, a welcoming growl when his career first gained traction in the 1960s, has improved over the decades.
He has always sung with a smile embedded in his voice, but Mahal has developed into an even more expressive vocalist. He yodeled, scatted and mimicked blues legend Howlin’ Wolf at Knuckleheads. His salacious lyrical asides on many selections indicated that his libido hasn’t diminished either.
A lusty version of “TV Mama,” a song associated with Kansas City’s Big Joe Turner, was a typical selection in a set tailored to an audience hellbent on drinking and dancing. Ordinarily, hearing renditions of conventional barroom fare like “John Henry,” “Stagger Lee” and “The Blues Is Alright” would be tiresome. Yet Mahal is capable of making even the most familiar material seem fresh. His chiming guitar solo during “Stagger Lee” betrayed his interest in the sounds of the Caribbean.
One of the most artistically adventurous musicians in the history of the blues, Mahal has made several intriguing recordings that place the music in new contexts. Only two pieces of this nature were featured at Knuckleheads.
A banjo-driven instrumental offered a bracing combination of folk, funk and Afropop. And a hypnotic rendition of “Zanzibar” explored the connection between music originating in Africa and the blues. Only on these compositions were bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith able to provide more than solid but rudimentary support.
While the audience clearly appreciated Mahal’s experimental side, they greeted the material he popularized like long lost friends. The gentle sway of “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes,” the limber “Corrina” and the pastoral charm of “Fishin’ Blues” were lovely. One of the form’s great evangelists, Mahal may have introduced as many people to the blues in the 1960s and 1970s as Stevie Ray Vaughan did in the 1980s.
The opening set by Anders Osborne evoked the incendiary power trio work of Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. The Swedish-born and New Orleans-based musician is capable of performing wonderfully hushed folk-based music, but he focused on industrial boogie at Knuckleheads.
Osborne’s fiery outing was flashy but forgettable. Mahal’s seasoned simmer was far more effective.