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

It’s That Time of the Year Again: Summer Concert Season

From rock to roots music to blues to hard rock and shock rock, it’s all in the mix for the next few months

To readers of the blog and folks who know me it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I love going to concerts. I can barely wait until the end of June when my summer concert season kicks off. Following is a preview of shows I’m currently planning to see.

U2: The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, June 29

Even though I’ve listened to U2 since the early ’80s, I’ve never seen them live. They have been on my bucket list for a long time. And what better occasion to catch them than during their 2017 tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, their fifth studio album and probably my favorite U2 record. The tour, which includes North America and Europe, kicked off on May 12 in Vancouver, Canada and will conclude in Brussels, Belgium on August 1. “My show” will be the second night at MetLife and the 20th date.

Rolling Stone, which covered the U.S. tour opener in Seattle on May 14, called the show “epic.” The set kicked off with Sunday Bloody Sunday and featured 16 tracks, including all songs from The Joshua Tree, played in the same order than on the album. U2 also played two encores with seven additional songs. For the final Joshua Tree tune, Mothers of the Disappeared, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder joined U2, together with Mumford & Sons who had opened the show. Here’s a clip of Where the Streets Have No Name.

John Mellencamp: Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 2017 Summer Tour, The Mann, Philadelphia, PA, July 6

This will be my second time to see John Mellencamp, one of my favorite music artists. Similar to U2, I’ve listened to him since the early ’80s. I like both the early, more rock-oriented Mellencamp with songs like Hurts So Good, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A., as well as his roots-oriented, more stripped down approach he has increasingly adopted over the past 20 years. I think his current album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies with Carlene Carter is an absolute gem. I previously reviewed it here.

The summer tour, which features Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, includes 22 shows. It is set to kick off on Monday, June 5 in Denver, Colo. and will finish in Forest Hills, N.Y. on July 11. The concert at the Mann in Philly will be the 18th date. As reported by Variety, the upcoming tour will include outdoor gigs, the first time in 15 years Mellencamp has played such venues.  Here’s a clip of Indigo Sunset, one of the best songs from the new album. I think Carter’s beautiful country voice and Mellencamp’s raspy singing make for a great mix.

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’: F.M. Kirby Center, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., August 10

I’m particularly excited about this show, which will be the first time I see any of these legendary blues artists. Taj Mahal’s and Keb’ Mo’s recently released collaboration album TajMo, which I previously reviewed here, has become one of my most frequently played records. The joy these two guys had when recording the album is obvious and something I find very engaging.

Things got underway in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 30. The concert in Wilkes-Barre will be the 11th of 39 shows of the tour, which will conclude in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla on October 28. Here’s a clip of All Around the World.

Deep Purple and Alice Cooper: PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J., August 28

While there are several hard rock bands I like, if I would have to choose only one, it would be Deep Purple. And if I would need to select only one of their albums, undoubtedly, it would be Machine Head, which to me is the definitive ’70s hard rock album. It was also one of my first vinyl records I bought in the late ’70s – I still own it!

While I’ve enjoyed listening to Deep Purple for more than 30 years, this will be the first time I’m going to see them live, as will be the case with Alice Cooper. But unlike Deep Purple, I don’t know Mr. Shock Rock’s music, except for the epic School’s Out and No More Mr. Nice Guy. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the co-lining tour includes 19 gigs in North America, starting in Las Vegas on August 12 and concluding on September 10 in Cincinnati. PNC Bank Arts Center will be 11th show. The tour is part of Deep Purple’s Long Goodbye Tour – sounds like it’s about time to see them!

Of course, I realize Machine Head was released 45 years ago. It’s still hard for me to picture Deep Purple without Ritchie Blackmore and especially Jon Lord, and Ian Gillan’s voice has probably seen better days. But Steve Morse and Don Airey are top-notch musicians, and the band’s new album inFinite, which I reviewed here, shows Deep Purple still has some gas in the tank. Here’s a clip of Highway Star from a recent concert in Munich, Germany.

I’ll probably need hearing aids after the show!

Sources: Wikipedia, U2 web site, Rolling Stone, YouTube, John Mellencamp web site, Ultimate Classic Rock

In Memoriam of Gregg Allman

Rock music has lost another giant

Considering I’ve been a music fan for nearly 40 years, I feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I “discovered” The Allman Brothers Band very late. Sure, I had known and liked Ramblin’ Man for a long time, but it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I really started exploring their music. From there I quickly proceeded to Gregg Allman’s solo records. Once I did, I quickly realized what I had missed between the two for all this time!

Even though I knew Allman was not in good health and also read rumors about hospice care a few months ago, I’m still in disbelief this great artist is gone. As I’m writing this post, new reports about his death and obituaries literally keep appearing by the minute. I don’t feel I need to add to this by writing another recap of his life. Instead, I’d like to let his music do the talking.

Undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable performances of the Allman Brothers is Whipping Post at Fillmore East in 1970, when killer guitarist Duane Allman was still around. It’s just epic!

Here is another one – the “laid back” version of Midnight Rider, which I’ve come to like even more than the Brothers’ original version.

Soulshine live at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in 2013. This literally brings tears to my eyes.

Last but not least, here is an awesome rehearsal version of Just Another Rider from Allman’s last solo album Low Country Blues (2011).

To quote a Rolling Stone story, “Gregg Allman was blessed with one of blues-rock’s great growling voices and, along with his Hammond B-3 organ playing (beholden to Booker T. Jones), had a deep emotional power.” Well said!

Allman may be gone, but I’ve no doubt his music will live on.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ Team Up For Uplifting Blues Album

What do you get when Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ get together? TajMo and a great dose of beautiful music!

Unless I know of a newly released album that interests me, I usually don’t bother browsing the “new music” section in iTunes. Well, this morning I did so anyway and came across TajMo, a new album from Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. And it’s a true gem!

Perhaps the first thing that’s striking about TajMo, which was released on May 5, is its upbeat music – not exactly how you traditionally picture the blues! “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal in an interview posted on the web site that supports the album. “It’s therapeutic, so you can get up off that down.” He added, “We wanted to do a real good record together, but we didn’t want to do the record that everyone expected us to do.”

While the two artists have known each other for a long time and Mahal helped Mo’ get his first record deal, this is their first collaboration album. What took them so long? Well, for one, both have been busy with their own careers. Since his 1980 debut Rainmaker, which appeared under his actual name Kevin Moore, Mo’ has released 14 additional albums. The last one was That Hot Pink Blues Album from April 2016. Mahal’s most recent solo album (his 26th) Maestro dates back to 2008. Additionally, both artists kept busy with touring. Sometimes good things take time to happen!

“The making of this record spanned two and a half years, whenever we could get together between tours,” Mo’ said during the above interview on the album’s web site. “And over that two and a half years, I got to know Taj really well. We’d talk about music and life and what we were doing on the record. He’s a stellar human being, just a brilliant man. Making this record was a really big deal for me. I learned a lot working with him.” Added Mahal, “Keb’s really good at keeping the ball up in the air. I got to see quite a few sides of him, and I was really impressed. He’s a hell of a guitar player, and I’m just amazed at some of the stuff that he put out there.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo 3

The album kicks off with Don’t Leave Me Here, which has a cool grove with Memphis style horns and a great blues harp, with Mahal and Mo’ taking turns on lead vocals. Shake Me In Your Arms is a great old-school soul tune featuring Joe Walsh on guitar. Another standout is Soul, which provides a nice dose of Afro-Caribbean grove – an invitation to get up and dance!

The album also includes various terrific covers. One is Squeeze Box, a song from The Who I’ve always loved. Mahal and Mo’ truly make it their own, turning it into a Cajun-style tune. Another cover I’d like to call out is Waiting On the World to Change, my favorite John Mayer song. While I’m a huge fan of the original, after listening to Mahal and Mo’, I can’t help but think these guys were meant to sing this song. Further kicking it up a notch for me is Bonnie Raitt on background vocals.

In addition to Walsh and Raitt, other guest musicians on the album include Sheila E. and Liz Wright. TajMo was self-produced by the two blues men. The album was recorded in Nashville by Zach Allen, John Caldwell and Casey Wasner and mixed by Ross Hogarth.

I think No Depression’s take sums it up nicely: “This is how you create a masterpiece, layering it slowly and carefully. Two and a half years in the making, pieced together in Mo’s home studio between tours, the record sounds like one special night when the planets were perfectly aligned and the artists and the sound man was too. But the real beauty of this creation is that this creature won’t give you nightmares, and in this story, the night never ends.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo Concert Poster

Mahal and Mo’ will criss-cross the U.S. and play 39 shows in support of the album. The tour kicks off in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 30 and concludes in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla on Oct 28. After listening to this album, I couldn’t resist to get a ticket for Aug 10, when they’ll play the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa – not exactly next door for me, but I’m already excited and will be sure to blog about the show.

Here’s a clip of Don’t Leave Me Here.

Sources: American Songwriter, TajMo web site, American Blues Scene, Glide Magazine, No Depression (The Journal of Roots Music), Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Buddy Guy/ Born to Play Guitar

Buddy Guy couldn’t have chosen a better title for his 17th studio album, which is full of electrifying energy.

John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” Well, if Chuck Berry is Mr. Rock & Roll, perhaps Buddy Guy could be called “Mr. Blues,” at least among the still-living electric blues guitarists. No matter how you may want to characterize Guy, one thing is clear – his 17th studio album sure as heck illustrates he was born to play the guitar!

Released on July 31, 2015, Born to Play Guitar certainly doesn’t sound like an album from a man who was close to 79 years old when he recorded it! The record kicks off with the title track, an excellent slower tune showcasing Guy’s amazing electric blues guitar skills and, not to forget, his still-formidable voice.

Buddy Guy_Born to Play Guitar_Sleeve

Then things pick up with Wear You Out featuring ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, one of many guitarists who were influenced by Guy. The album also includes guest appearances by other top-notch musicians. Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Weston plays a bad-ass harp on Too Late and Kiss Me Quick. English singer-songwriter Joss Stone shares vocals with Guy on (Baby) You Got What It Takes. And then there is Van Morrison who joins Guy on vocals for Flesh & Bone, a beautiful tune dedicated to B.B. King.

While each of the above songs already is a true gem, to me there is one that takes things to an even higher level: Whiskey, Beer & Wine. This kick-ass blues rocker sounds like a reincarnation of none other than Jimi Hendrix, another guitarist Guy influenced.

While many artists listened to Guy, he of course was influenced by other musicians as well. One of them was Muddy Waters. Guy is paying homage to Waters with the album’s closer, Come Back Muddy, the only acoustic blues on the record. The tune’s last lines pretty much sum up what Guy views as his mission these days – keeping the blues alive: “Come back Muddy/The blues ain’t been the same/Give you my promise/That I’m gonna keep on playing.” It’s also a message Guy shares during his concerts. I witnessed this firsthand when I was fortunate to catch one of his shows last July, an amazing double bill with Jeff Beck. You can read more about it here.

Buddy Guy_Born to Play Guitar_Cover Backside

Most of the album’s music was written by Richard Fleming and producer Tom Hambridge. He also was one of the studio musicians, playing drums and other percussive instruments and contributing background vocals. Guy only has co-writing credits on four of the songs. But as Rolling Stone’s David Fricke observed, Guy sings “lines he didn’t write but lived. In the blues, that’s what matters.”

Born to Play Guitar climbed to no. 1 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart and made it into the Billboard 200, peaking at no. 60. It also won the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2016. As reported by Blues and BG Music News, when Guy accepted the award, his 7th Grammy, he said: “At least I know the blues is not dead yet! I want to thank my record company, because I don’t think blues is getting played that much no more. And I’m not ashamed to say that, because I used to could drive down the streets and hear Muddy Waters once or twice a week. But I didn’t give up. And I gotta thank my record company for puttin up with me and my producer Tom Hambridge.”

Of course, I couldn’t finish this post without a clip of – I suppose you correctly guessed it – Whiskey, Beer & Wine.

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Blues and BG Music News, YouTube