From the beginning of his lengthy and illustrious career, blues musician Taj Mahal has consistently demonstrated two key elements: a willingness to surround his formidable talent with a rather eclectic ensemble of session players, and a love of traditional American music. Phantom Blues, recorded in 1995 and released the following year, is a solid amplification of these cornerstones which continue to serve Mahal exceptionally well, and have led to some exciting highlights in a serviceable body of work.
As a founding member of The Rising Sons in 1965, Taj Mahal combined forces with musicians as diverse as Ed Cassidy, the future drummer in Spirit, and Ry Cooder, a heavyweight musicologist with his own stellar career in roots music. Mahal's most recent work finds him sharing, but never abandoning, the spotlight with a diverse sprinkling of guest musicians that include Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Mike Campbell (Tom Petty's guitarist), and Los Lobos' frontman, David Hidalgo. Mahal has chosen to almost exclusively emphasize his vocal dexterity, riding the power and the rhythm of a tight back-up band that is equal to the challenge of not overshadowing the singer, yet spurring him to reach for higher ground. The nucleus of this band includes: percussionist, Tony Braunagal; Larry Fulcher on bass; John Cleary in a dual role as pianist and composer of two of the songs; guitar backing by Johnny Lee Schell; and stunning saxophone solos and underscoring by Joe Sublett.
Taj Mahal digs into traditional American soil to find the wellspring of emotion embodied in the selections he has chosen for Phantom Blues. The disc begins with the Mahal-penned "Lovin' In My Baby's Arms", a blues-folk blend that would not be uncomfortable on any early Dylan album. Mike Campbell's shuffling 12-string rhythm merges with Mahal's harmonica and vocal, surrounding the listener with the singer's anguish and regret. The band picks up the tempo on "Cheatin' On You"; a snappy drum intro and an upbeat wailing saxophone-horn backdrop drive the song into R&B dance territory despite the serious subject of mutual infidelity. Scat vocals and Wolfman Jack-like asides bubble just under the instrumental break.
Mahal and friends obviously find joy in kicking into a higher gear on numbers such as "The Hustle Is On" and "Ooh Poo Pah Doo". In the former, a Fats Domino-styled boogie-woogie piano and an earthy, aggressive sax trade phrases with the vocalist in a series of impactful solos that are as diverse as they are enjoyable; guitar and organ solos, each in their own brief showcase, do not fail to delight the listener with their energy and skill. "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" is nothing but the call-response nonsense number its title suggests; devoid of deep meaning as the lyric is, the song remains a grindingly up-tempo bit of fun - music for the playful within which lurk ghosts of several musical styles, echoes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, even a hint of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer"! A companion piece to these two songs is most definitely "I Need Your Loving". Again the simplicity of the lyric barely goes beyond the repetition of the title, but this is rendered insignificant as Mahal growls and snarls his way through the piece with Bonnie Raitt along for the ride and counterpointing Mahal's vocals with her own effectively understated vocals. A powerful chorus lifts the singers in gospel fashion to near-ecstasy with its raucous energy, while the song's several changes of pace and unexpected false endings enliven the action further and add to the listener's delight.
Eric Clapton's guitar solos are featured on two selections. "Here In The Dark" is a mournfully stated hurtin' blues lament of love lost and pity self-directed. The vocals soar to a roar of pain, then drop suddenly into a groan of despair. Clapton, who can play by rote on this kind of song, punctuates the vocal with several codas, and slips through a solo that is tastefully, if somewhat unspectacularly, delivered. Clapton fares much better on "(You've Got To) Love Her With A Feeling", a Sonny Thompson/Freddie King number that has Mahal verbally moaning out advice about how to love a woman. Clapton plays a complex solo with spirit combined with virtuosity, lending strength to the final effect of this take on a classic song. Although this reviewer is hard-pressed to select a favorite number from such a consistently high-caliber collection, two compositions are worthy of note. "Let The Four Winds Blow" is an instantly familiar standard written and previously charted by Fats Domino. Taj Mahal and company bring a warm Cajun flavor to this classic by incorporating elements as diverse, yet remarkably compatible, as David Hidalgo's zydeco accordion, the New Orleans barroom piano that gives the song more zest than the original, and the brassy Dixieland fade-out that stunningly concludes the song. In "The Car Of Your Dreams", the concluding piece of this instructively entertaining collection, a snarling guitar and vocals grab the listener as a harder-edged Mahal leads the power-chord blues into the realm where hard rock falls just short of heavy metal. The ensuing collision is suited to the subject of the pain felt by a hard-working man who gets his heart crushed and his finances ruined by his unfaithful, unreliable car. 'Another day...another dollar thrown away!', anguishes Taj in the infectiously repetitive chorus; the song borders on being the definitive version, but it would not be out of place on any rock album.
The remaining songs in the collection range from the faithful rendition of blues standards such as Doc Pomus' "Lonely Avenue", solidly performed in a spirit that does not stray far from the flavor of the original, to "Fanning The Flames", with its weighted down reggae beat slowed to a bluesy lament that fails to engage this reviewer's interest beyond his initial listening, despite the competence of its performance. Other songs include "Don"t Tell Me", "We're Gonna Make It", and "What Am I Living For?". All are fairly pedantic in terms of style and delivery. Listening to Taj Mahal on Phantom Blues is not unlike drinking deeply the sweet water drawn from an ancient well in a sturdy oak bucket: others may well have been here before, and the taste is familiar - but it still quenches our thirst and we are amazed by its pristine clarity and simplicity. In short, Taj Mahal may not bring much that is innovative to his opus, but his interpretation and instruction are nonetheless well worth the effort of anyone who enjoys the blues, especially in the hands of a master.
-- D. Malcolm Fairbrother