Taj Mahal first crossed paths with Keb’ Mo’ in the late ’60s—but he didn’t realize it at the time. The fledgling blues legend was playing a high school assembly in Compton, California, and he made an impression on a student named Kevin Moore, who would eventually pursue a similar musical path under the moniker Keb’ Mo’.
They actually met in the early ’90s, when a mutual friend brought Keb’ Mo’ to a studio where Mahal was recording. “He asked me to play a few bars for him on guitar,” Mo’ says. “I must have done something right, because he introduced me to more people.” In fact, the veteran helped the younger bluesman get a record deal.
Now the two Grammy winners have a record of their own, TajMo, supported by a tour that brings the duo and their band (including horns and backup singers) to Hyannis’ Cape Cod Melody Tent on Aug. 18 and Cohasset’s South Shore Music Circus the next night—in addition to a free Aug. 16 show at Prescott Park in Portsmouth.
TajMo: The Taj Mahal & Keb’Mo’ Band plays the Cape Cod Melody Tent on Aug. 18 and South Shore Music Circus on Aug. 19.
“It’s great getting to play with Taj every night because I learn something new from him each time,” says Mo’, still the youngster at 65. And the admiration’s mutual for Mahal, 75. “It amazed me how he could just go off on what I was improvising,” Mahal says of the co-produced sessions for the record they began in 2014 when their schedules allowed. “We learned a lot from each other.”
The resulting album shows that smooth chemistry. “We got soul power,” they sing over an African township-jive groove in their ebullient co-written track “Soul.” A cover of the Who’s “Squeeze Box” adopts a slow, accordion-iced Louisiana feel, and Mahal revisits his cover of Sleepy John Estes’ “Diving Duck Blues” from his 1968 solo debut, where the two players nestle into a mutual affinity for acoustic country-blues. Elsewhere they take a more straightforward approach, sharing barbed electric blues leads in “Shake Me in Your Arms.”
Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks Jr. in Harlem, Mahal grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a jazz pianist, his mother a schoolteacher and gospel singer, and they often invited musicians from diverse cultures to the house. “Half of my ancestors are from the South, and the other half from the Caribbean,” he says. “So I grew up listening to everything from rhumba to jazz, blues to classical.”
After working on a dairy farm and studying agriculture at UMass Amherst, Mahal moved to Los Angeles and launched the Rising Sons with Ry Cooder, a pioneering blues-rock project that didn’t get its due, though Mahal earned the opportunity to work with the Rolling Stones, appearing in their famous Rock and Roll Circus film.
For his part, Keb’ Mo’ gained an affinity for music from his uncle in Northern California who taught him to play guitar and introduced him to music ranging from the Beatles to Phil Upchurch, a guitarist who blended blues, R&B and jazz. “People always like to put musicians in a box, that they can only play one type of music,” he says. “It comes from the old days of telling friends what section they can find your music in at the store.”
Of their categorization as blues musicians, Mahal adds, “Look at what Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed and Elmore James were doing. They added different rhythms like rhumba, swing and cha-cha. We’re just playing the music that moves us.”
Their album slips in a few guests, including guitarist Joe Walsh and singers Lizz Wright and— mutual past collaborator—Bonnie Raitt, who lends harmony to a closing cover of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.” Released in May but completed before last year’s contentious presidential election, TajMo largely exudes a sense of joy and optimism.
“Blues music has always been a place where people can turn in their lowest moments, and we wanted to keep that feeling alive,” Mo’ says from the end of a European tour. And Mahal adds, “The music is just a reflection of what everyone is feeling right now. We’re in a strange place. We like to see music as a way to make people happy and give them a hopeful look for the future.” ◆
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