When a musician books one of his children as the opening act, it’s hard not to write it off as nepotism and wistfully focus on my beer. Thankfully, as Fredericks Brown kicked off the evening, my expectations were pleasantly adjusted. The duo consists of Deva Mahal on vocals and keyboardist Stephanie Brown, and their simple arrangements allowed the purity of Mahal’s voice to shine through. They did a great job warming up the audience, and the crowd seemed genuinely sad to see them leave the stage.
The second act was a quick set by veteran South African musician and anti-Apartheid folk music hero, Vusi Mahlasela. A former member of the South African super group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (think Paul Simon’s Graceland), Mahlesela eloquently wove his way through a select array of his extensive catalog of songs. My favorite was Say Africa, an inspiring anthem that invited the crowd to both become involved in the song, and to raise the consciousness of the listener.
When Taj Mahal made his first record nearly 50 years ago, he played with blues giants like Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Muddy Waters. He has studied a wide range of styles over the years, both as a musician and ethnomusicologist, and he actively incorporates a bit of each style into his own music. So when he took the stage, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
What I got was a true showman’s offering. The group opened up with a gravely-voiced version of “Used to Be Down,” establishing their blues chops from the get-go. From there, adeptly led by Mahal, the trio made its way through an expansive variety of songs including the quirky classic, “Gone Fishin’” and the sweet and sassy “Queen Bee” (clearly a product of his Caribbean music studies), to the more characteristically blues-soaked Good Morning Ms. Brown. And Mahal’s not afraid to let the music speak for itself, playing a few gritty instrumental electric guitar pieces. By the end of the evening, he’d played at least six different instruments, and after a short-but-sweet encore, he wrapped up the evening with a smile and a wave. Too short, but very sweet.
I’ve learned over the years that when you get a chance to see a blues legend, you gotta take it. There may not be a “next time” for it. Make sure you come see this man before his extensive knowledge and immense talent leaves this earth.