An Evening of Joyful Blues with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

Blues Legends Bring Good Time to Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley

A long three months finally came to an end last night. Shortly after Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ had issued their collaboration album TajMo in May, I found out about their All Around the World tour and got a ticket to what I knew I simply wouldn’t want to miss. It was a great decision!

Yesterday night, the two blues dynamos brought their show to the F.M. Kirby Center of the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The heart of the Wyoming Valley is not exactly New York or Chicago, but was well worth the 2.5-hour hike from my house through the Pocono Mountains!

Readers of the blog have probably noticed the blues has been on my mind frequently as of late. Undoubtedly, the excellent TajMo album, which I previously reviewed here, has something to do with it. In addition, I’ve been excited about other recent new releases in the blues and soul genres from artists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Casey James and Southern Avenue. Maybe Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are right when they expressed full confidence that the blues will survive during a recent PBS NewsHour segment.

Jontavious Willis

Before I get to TajMo, I’d like to say few words about the opening act, a country blues artist called Jontavious Willis. According to his online bio, Mahal called Willis “my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind.” After having seen last night’s 30-minute performance by the 21-year-old from Greenville, Ga., I have to say this is not an exaggeration and yet another indication that the prospects of the blues look bright these days!

Willis, who is currently finishing his studies at Columbus State University, released his debut album Blue Metamorphosis in February this year. He’ll continue to tour with TajMo for many of their upcoming gigs in August and September. What this young artist got out of just an acoustic guitar was insane. It’s hard to find clips that do his exceptional solo acoustic skills full justice.

After Willis blew off the Kirby Center’s roof with his dynamic acoustic guitar performance, it was time for TajMo. From the very first moment they walked on stage, their joy of performing together was palpable. The set opened with Señor Blues, a jazz standard by Horace Silver, which Mahal covered on his 1999 studio album with the same title. This was followed by Don’t Leave Me Here, the first of five songs Mahal and Mo’ played from TajMo, and one of favorites from that album.

After six tunes with the full band, the two blues maestros took things “to the deep country blues,” as Mahal put it, playing Diving Duck Blues. Written by Sleepy John Estes, Mahal first recorded the track on his 1969 eponymous debut album. It is also included on TajMo and another highlight of that record. Watch the amazing chemistry between the two.

One of the highlights during the second half of the set was The Worst Is Yet to Come. Co-written by Mo’, Heather Donovan and Pete Sallis, Mo included the tune on 2014’s BLUESAmericana, his 12th studio album. I wonder whether Mo’ got the inspiration for the song’s title from the American songbook 1959 standard The Best Is Yet to Come, which became one of Frank Sinatra’s popular tunes in the mid-’60s. Unfortunately, the only TajMo clip I could find is cut off in the beginning.

Ironically, The Worst Is Yet to Come was followed by one of my longtime favorite blues tunes: She Caught the Katy And Left Me a Mule to Ride. Prior to that I only had known the great version by The Blues Brothers. It turns out Mahal co-wrote this classic with Yank Rachell and included it on this second studio album The Natch’s Blues, which was released in 1968.

The last song I’d like to highlight is All Around the World, which also appears on TajMo and was the closer of the 20-song regular set. The tune perfectly sums up the positive vibes Mahal and Mo’ sent to the audience throughout the show. People were up on their feet and made some noise, so they came back for one encore: Soul, yet another tune from their collaboration album.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about the top-notch band that backed up Mahal and Mo’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the names of the musicians, but here are a few things I remember. The drummer comes from Memphis, Tenn., former home of the storied Stax Records label. The bassist, who is a lefty, hails from Washington, D.C. The fantastic horn section consists of a male trumpet player and female saxophonist. Mo’ called her out for her amazing sound. The keyboarder, who among others played a seductively roaring Hammond, was top-rate as well. Last but not least, there were two special background vocalists: Mahal’s daughters, Deva and Zoe. And they were not there just for alibi – these ladies can sing!

TajMo are taking their tour next to Wheeling, W.Va.; and Richmond, Va. before hitting New York City’s SummerStage in Central Park this Sunday, where they will perform a free show. I’m tempted to go there to see them again! The tour continues throughout the remainder of August and September all the way into October, when it concludes in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on October 21.

Sources: PBS NewsHour, Jontavious Willis website, Setlist.fm, Facebook, TajMo web site, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’

The two artists talk about their collaboration and their brand of upbeat blues

This clip from the PBS NewsHour beautifully captures the spirit of Taj Mahal’s and Keb’ Mo’s collaboration album TajMo and their ongoing tour. I can’t wait to see these two amazing artists at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. tomorrow night.

Taj Majal: “Life brings a lot of strive. In the digital age it’s even more intense. A lot of people don’t know how to get loose. So our job as musicians is to help them get loose and have a good time, and think good about themselves.”

Keb’ Mo’: “There is something working in life, in the universe, in the bigger picture that has nothing to do with commerce and money. And for me, I’ve found after 20 years of going after money that the faster I ran after money, the faster the money ran.”

Sources: PBS NewsHour, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Muddy Magnolias/Broken People

Muddy Magnolias is one of the most exciting acts I came across last year when I read about them in Rolling Stone. I was reminded of this powerful urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo when listening to Memphis soul and blues act Southern Avenue, which I’ve done quite extensively over the past few days. I’m not saying the two sound the same, but there are some similarities.

Broken People is the title track from Muddy Magnolias’ excellent full-length debut album, which was released on Third Generation Records in October last year. It was produced by Rick Beato, with support from Mario Marchetti and Butch Walker, and recorded in Atlanta and Nashville in late spring 2016. Last Friday, the album’s latest single Shine On! appeared.

Muddy Magnolias was formed in Nashville in 2014 by two singer-songwriters: Brooklyn, New York native Jessy Wilson, who has an R&B background and is a protegee of John Legend, and Kallie North, who grew up in West Texas, listening to country and folk music. After their performance at CMA Music Festival in August that year, Rolling Stone called them the best unsigned duo, comparing their blend of styles to The Rolling Stones inhabiting Indigo Girls. Looking forward to more music from this act.

Sources: Wikipedia, Muddy Magnolias web site, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis

In a short amount of time, Southern Avenue has become one of my favorite new band. It all started when fellow blogger Music Enthusiast  included this firecracker Memphis blues and soul quintet and their tune Don’t Give Up in a recent post. I immediately liked what I heard.

Don’t Give Up and the tune I’d like to highlight in this post, 80 Miles From Memphis, an uptempo blues with a cool groove and amazing singing, are both on the band’s eponymous debut album. Produced by Kevin Houston and released in February this year, the record appeared on none other than Stax Records, the storied Memphis soul label (now based in Los Angeles) that in its heyday had artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Albert King under contract. According to a story in the Commercial Appeal, Southern Avenue is the first Memphis act signed to Stax in five decades – pretty incredible! For more on Stax, see my recent post.

Named after the street that runs from the east of Memphis to Soulsville, the original home of Stax, Southern Avenue was formed in 2015. The band’s line-up includes Ori Naftaly, an Israeli blues guitarist who came to the U.S. in 2013; Tierinii Jackson (lead vocals); her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums, vocals) and Jeremy Powell (keyboards). Daniel McKee, who plays bass on the recording, has since left Southern Avenue. The band is currently relying on a couple of different bassists during shows.

I just find it very refreshing to listen to these guys. Oh, by the way, their album entered the U.S. Billboard Top Blues Albums Chart at no. 6 during the week ended March 18 and remained in the chart for four weeks. Not bad for a debut – I hope they’re just getting started!

Sources: Wikipedia, Commercial Appeal, Billboard Charts, YouTube

Stars of Stax

Some of my favorite artists who recorded at the legendary Memphis record label

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Stax Records. I’ve always been impressed with the amazing array of artists who are associated with this record label: Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Kim Weston and The Staple Singers, to name some of them. I thought this would be a great theme for a list, but before I get to it, a bit of history is in order.

Stax Records was originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 in Memphis, Tenn. by Jim Stewart, a banker who played the fiddle in a country band on the side. Initially operating in a garage, Stewart started out focusing on country, rockabilly and straight pop. In 1958, his sister Astelle Axton co-invested in the company by mortgaging her family home.

Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton

In 1959, Satellite set up a small recording studio in Brunswick, Tenn. and released its first record in the summer of  that year, Fool In Love, by R&B band The Veltones. Following the release of the record, Satellite moved back to Memphis and set up shop in an old movie theater. In the summer of 1960, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla became the first artists to record at the new facility. Their record Cause I Love You was nationally distributed by Atlantic Records, laying the foundation for an important yet fateful distribution partnership.

Stax Records Museum

Due to a legal dispute, Satellite Records changed its name to Stax in September 1961, using the first two letters from the siblings’ last name – Stewart and Axton. In addition to a recording studio in the movie theater’s former auditorium, the company also set up a record store in the cinema’s old foyer. The store carried records from many different labels and became a popular hangout for local teenagers, which gave the company valuable insights into what music was selling.

Stax also established a house band that backed up the company’s artists during recordings. Eventually, that band consisted of the members who formed Booker T. & the M.G.’s in 1962: Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They served as the session band during most recordings until 1970.

Booker T & the MGs

In 1962, Stax also signed Otis Redding, who would become its biggest star until his untimely death in 1967. By the mid ’60s, Stax had also signed other major artists, including Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. Stax’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s and other ethnically integrated bands, along with a racially integrated team of staff and artists was unprecedented amid the civil rights-era racial strive and deep-seated tensions of the late ’50s and ’60s, especially in Memphis and the South.

In 1968, Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records and in the process lost the rights to all recordings Atlantic had distributed between 1960 and 1967. A new co-owner, Al Bell, stepped up and substantially expanded the label’s operations in an effort to better compete with its main rival Motown Records. In 1972, Bell got a distribution deal with CBS Records, but CBS lost interest in Stax, which eventually forced the label to close in 1975.

In 1977, Fantasy Records purchased the post-1968 Stax catalog and some of the pre-1968 recordings. In 1978, Stax under Fantasy’s ownership began signing new acts. But by the early ’80s, no new material appeared on Stax, and it became strictly a reissue label. In 2004, the Stax label was reactivated after Fantasy had been acquired by Concord Records. Today, Stax continues to be owned by Concord and issues both new recordings and its 1968-1975 catalog. Atlantic Records still owns most of the Stax material from 1959 to 1968.

Following is a selection of songs from some of my favorite artists whose records have been issued on Stax, old and new:

Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions (1962)

Otis Redding/I’ve Been Loving You For Too Long (1965)

Wilson Pickett/In the Midnight Hour (1965)

Sam & Dave/Soul Man (1967)

Isaac Hayes/Theme From Shaft (1971)

The Staple Singers/I’ll Take You There (1972)

Albert King/That’s What the Blues Is All About (1974)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats/S.O.B. (2015)

Melissa Etheridge/Hold On I’m Coming (2016)

Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis (2017)

Between its initial establishment and 1975, Stax has released more than 800 singles and nearly 300 LPs, winning eight Grammys and an Academy Award. The label has had 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B Charts and more than 167 hits in the top 100 Pop Charts. In April this year, Concord and Rhino Entertainment, which manages the Stax catalog owned by Atlantic Records, announced a joint campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary with multiple albums, boxed sets and live performance releases throughout the year. Among others, this includes the Stax Classic Series, which consists of collection albums for each of the label’s 10 biggest stars, the Complete Stax Singles boxed set series, as well as a 4-CD anthology of Isaac Hayes to coincide what would have been his 75th birthday.

Sources: Wikipedia, Stax Records website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listing to: Keb’Mo’/That Hot Pink Blues Album

Live album showcases Mo’s signature style mixing blues with pop and soul

These days, the blues seems to be on my mind a lot. I’m happy to report though that my mental state hasn’t changed – I’m still crazy about great music, and music is my doctor! Plus, when it comes to Keb’ Mo’, the blues rarely makes you feel down.

Born Kevin Roosevelt Moore on October 3, 1951 in South Los Angeles, Calif., Keb’ Mo’ initially broke through in 1994 with his eponymous second studio album. While the blues forms the backbone of most of his music, Mo’ has frequently mixed in other genres, including pop, soul and jazz throughout his 35-year-plus recording career.

Keb Mo

Country and delta blues hard core fans may dismiss Mo’s breed of the blues, but I like the fact that he’s been broadening the genre. In this regard, he reminds me a bit of Taj Mahal, who has mixed acoustic blues with folk and roots music from around the world, such as reggae, zydeco, West African and even Hawaiian music. To be clear, I also love pure country and delta blues but can always listen to artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes and Robert Johnson.

I’m still relatively new to Keb’ Mo’ and only started paying closer attention to him when he and Taj Mahal released their collaboration album TajMo in May this year. I previously shared my thoughts on this outstanding record here. I’ve also been motivated to explore Mo’ more deeply, since I’m going to see him and Mahal next Thursday as part of their ongoing tour.

After listening into various of Mo’s 16 albums to date, I decided to highlight his latest solo record, which captures live performances from his 2015 tour. According to the bio on his web site, That Hot Pink Blues Album “began as almost an afterthought and an assortment of concert gems “for the fans,” because his front of house engineer decided to hit “record” at the beginning of each show.” The album ended up with 16 tracks captured from shows in nine different cities.

Keb Mo and Band

The live record presents tunes from throughout Mo’s career and, as such, is a great introduction to his music. Following are some of the songs I’d like to highlight.

The opener Tell Everybody I Know is written by Mo’ and first appeared on his above mentioned 1994 eponymous album. His guitar-playing has a bit of a J.J. Cale feel to it. I also love the keyboard part!

Next up is Somebody Hurt You. Co-written by Mo’ and John Lewis Parker, the track was included on BLUESAmericana, Mo’s 14th album released in 2014. The tune is a relaxed mid-tempo blues that showcases Mo’s electric guitar skills. The great background vocals add a nice dose of soul.

The Worst Is Yet to Come, another tune from BLUESAmericana, is one of the highlights on the album. Mo’ co-wrote this song with Heather Donovan and Pete Sallis. The amazing groove of this mid-tempo electric blues just makes you want you start moving. It’s another nice illustration of Mo’s electric guitar skills.

Government Cheese stands out to me for its seductive funky groove. Written by Mo’, the song first appeared on 2009’s Live of Mo’, his first live album. The track also includes an unexpected Moog-sounding keyboard part.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is More Than One Way Home. Written by Mo’ and John Lewis Parker, the song illustrates Mo’s pop side. He recorded it first for Just Like You, his third studio album from 1996, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. He won two more, in 1998 and 2005, and had various additional Grammy nominations. The catchy pop jazz track features a nice electric slide guitar and a cool bass solo.

Before wrapping up this post, I’d also like to acknowledge Mo’s excellent back-up band: Michael B. Hicks (keyboards) Stan Sargeant (bass) and Casey Wasner (drums). Hicks is known in the funk and soul scene in Nashville, where Mo’ resides, and beyond the city. In addition to touring with Mo’, Hicks also records his own music. In 2013, he released an album called This Is Life, together with an 18-piece funk group, Mike Hicks and the Funk Puncs. Sargeant is a prominent session and touring bassist, who has worked with an impressive array of music artists like Dolly Parton, Vanessa Williams, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Butler, David Benoit and Al Jarreau. He also released a solo record in 2014, a pop jazz album. Like Mo’, Wasner is a multi-instrumentalist. He also produced Mo’s BLUESAmericana album and writes his own music.

Sources: Wikipedia, Keb’ Mo’ website, Mike Hicks website, Stan Sargeant web site, Casey Wasner website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/ Diving Duck Blues

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo‘ perform Diving Duck Blues, a tune from their excellent collaboration album TajMo, which was released on May 5 and is hands-down one of my favorite 2017 records. I previously reviewed it here. Watching these two “old hands” playing together side by side in such a relaxed and joyful manner is just priceless to me and makes me want to grab my acoustic guitar. I’m not saying I could play like this – not even close!

Originally, Diving Duck Blues was written and released by country blues artist Sleepy John Estes – not sure when. The earliest recording reference I could find was a 1962 album called The Legend of Sleepy John Estes. Mahal also included the track on his eponymous debut album from 1968, as did electric blues rock dynamo Johnny Winter on his 1978 release White, Hot and Blue.

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are currently touring together, and I’m set to see them next Thursday at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.  Can’t wait!

Sources: Wikipedia, Discogs, YouTube