Palace Music

Taj Mahals deep blues

When Taj Mahal came on the scene in the late 1960s, he made a lot of radicals sick. He seemed like some benign and beneficent Uncle Remus, a throwback to an era when black musicians routinely performed with a backdrop landscape featuring watermelons, rolling bones and voodoo dolls. There weren't many young African-Americans playing old-time blues in those days, much less consciously cuddly ones like Mahal, who gave his albums and songs titles such as Natch'l Blues, De Ole Folks at Home, Mo' Roots and "Ain't Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')." James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Sly Stone were singing powerful modern anthems of black pride and power; Rap Brown, Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis were also headline news. And here was Taj, a-grinnin' and a-shuckin' and a-jivin' and a-tappin', even as the Movement was at full throttle away from the past. Was he called out for Tomming it? Sure. Did he give a crap? It seemed not.

What Mahal understood before anyone else was that there was a deep, rich, cultural heritage in early black music, even if the memories of prewar humiliations and subjugation were too fresh for most of us to remain objective about it. But there was never anything shameful about the blues, only in the fetid sociopolitical swamp in which the music was spawned. Mahal realized this and, with the passage of years, came to be known as an ethnomusicologist and musician; he mined the roots of African and West Indian music, jazz, zydeco, reggae and folk as well as the blues.

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With time came redemption; today, even hip-hop icons Dr. Dre and Ice-T readily pay homage (verbal, if not musical) to their forebear. Tap dancing and bandanna wearing became acceptable and even hip again, and the image of a black guy playing a guitar in overalls on a rural front porch is no longer cause for offense. Now pushing 60, Mahal must savor the sweet taste of vindication. Celebrate with him when he plays the Sun Theatre on Friday night.

You already know Little Charlie & the Nightcats as a jump blues band with a sense of humor that must have served them well as younger, lesser bands went platinum on a compromised jump/swing style. The brief heyday of neo-swing is over; the mainstream movement is dead; and there was little in it for Little Charlie & the Nightcats, though they've been jumping the blues with chops, sterling original tunes and eight albums for more than two decades. Little Charlie Baty's vaunted guitar style—he's as effective in a backing role as he is peeling off jazz-rich licks that'll make your pants roll up and down your legs—comes from a variety of sources, from Robert Lockwood Jr. and T-Bone Walker to Barney Kessell and Tal Farlow. Singer/harmonica man Rick Estrin is a hyperanimated front man, noted for writing with a Lieber/ Stoller-like sense of humor and jivey cool.

Ironically, the most straight-ahead, traditional blues album of the group's career was their most recent, 1998's Shadow of the Blues, released during the full bloom of the swing revival. The album features a greasy, thrumming, low-down Chicago attack, displaying a wonderful versatility, familiarity and expertise beyond the style for which they're best known. Add these ingredients together, and you have a sound some have classified as West Coast blues: harp-based, swinging riffs à la Little Walter, often played with a double-shuffle beat à la Louis Jordan, all while retaining the blues' essential down-home vibe.

Swing comes in many meters and tempos, but it's the pure feel that counts—and this group has more feel than Bob Packwood with six martinis under his belt. Getcher ass felt up all nice 'n' purty when Little Charlie & the Nightcats play the Blue Cafe on Saturday night.

At last, a Los Lobos anthology that does justice to the group's legacy. Rhino Records has released a four-disc box called El Cancionero Mas y Mas to replace Slash/Warner Brothers' woefully inadequate 1993 set, Just Another Band From East LA. El Cancionero features 86 tunes from everyone's favorite vatos gordos, beginning with their days as a local party band, and going right through their most recent album, This Time. It includes such essential tracks as "I Got Loaded," "Evangeline," "I Walk Alone" and "Little John of God" that were curiously absent from East LA. But Rhino's lavishly notated and illustrated box does more than fill gaps and update: it includes a wealth of unreleased, out-of-print, live, promo-album-only and otherwise rare tracks, plus selections from side projects and solo albums. While I've never been a fan of Los Lobos' post-Kiko industrial exterminations, they're more palatable in this context. Indeed, the result is something of a revelation, a study of a band that never stopped growing, offering musical surprises while always remembering their roots. El Cancionero shines a spotlight on just how important Los Lobos has been to both rock & roll and Latino music, and ya can dance to it, too. Lovely.

TAJ MAHAL & THE PHANTOM BLUES BAND PERFORM AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. FRI., 9 P.M. $32.50; LITTLE CHARLIE & THE NIGHTCATS PLAY AT THE BLUE CAFE, 210 THE PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111. SAT., 10 P.M. $10.

 
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