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Posts Tagged ‘Taj Mahal’

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(Above: Allman Brothers guitarists (from left) Woody Haynes, Derek Trucks with guest Eric Clapton at the Beacon Theater in New York, March 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Derek Trucks Band tour started last week, just days after the final show in the Allman Brothers’ 15-night residency at the Beacon Theater in New York City.

Numerous guests, including Dr. John, Chuck Leavell, members of Phish, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock stopped by to help celebrate 40 years of the Allmans.

“This was the most enjoyable Beacon run I’ve been a part of in the 10 years I’ve been doing it. That first night with Taj Mahal and Levon Helm was great,” Trucks said. “The show on (March) 26th was the band’s actual 40th anniversary. We had no guests and did the first two records in order. That was probably the best show of the run.”

This year was also the 20th anniversary of the band’s first Beacon residency. For nearly as long, it has been rumored Eric Clapton would join the band onstage. This year he finally did, adding extra weight to the run of shows dedicated to founding guitarist and slide legend Duane Allman.

Each night opened with a montage of old photos as guitarists Haynes and Trucks played Allman’s moving acoustic instrumental “Little Martha.” Allman’s daughter was also present for each performance.

“It was a fitting tribute, but especially doing the Derek and the Dominos tunes with Eric and hearing the Allmans’ numbers with Eric was an amazing collision,” Trucks said of the legendary album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” Clapton and Allman recorded together in 1970. “Obviously Duane was the key to that. I don’t think Eric and the band would be playing together otherwise.”

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(Above: Vusi Mahlasela at Live 8.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bela Fleck has taken his banjo to some unexpected forays into jazz, classical and holiday music. For his latest project, not only did Fleck bring his banjo to Africa, but he brought several of his African collaborators with him on tour.

For three hours Fleck and his Africa Project mesmerized a half-full Uptown Theater Thursday night.

Starting promptly at 8, Fleck opened with a 10 minute solo improvisation based on the melodies and techniques he picked up in Africa. After introducing thumb pianist and Anania Ngoliga and guitarist John Kitime from Tanzania, Fleck ceded the stage to the duo. That set the pattern for the night: Fleck’s introduction, a couple solo numbers followed by a couple duets.

Ngoliga’s thumb piano was a wooden box about the size of a sampler with about three dozen metal strips of varying lengths attached. Backed by Kitime’s buoyant acoustic guitar, the pair sang about their native country. After 15 minutes, Fleck came out for “Kabibi.” Ngoliga sang that one in a voice so high it almost sounded like a children’s song. His happiness was so infectious it’s hard to imagine anyone not cracking a smile while listening.

There were only two drawbacks to Fleck’s format. Just as it seemed the performers were getting in a groove, it was time for the next act. Perhaps more frustrating was the high level of entertainment and musicianship from the artists. Each could easily carry a show of their own. With any luck, some of them will come back through again.

On the other hand, Fleck is to be commended for introducing these musicians to his audience. During his set, kora player Toumani Diabate recalled the last time he was in Kansas City … 18 years ago. It is very conceivable this was the first (and only) performance our town will see from the rest of the artists.

Next up was D’Gary and Mario, a guitarist and percussionist from Madagascar. D’Gary’s playing style was like Spanish flamenco married to Ali Farka Toure’s African blues. D’Gary’s playing was virtuosic, yet warm and inviting. He was joined by Mario who played a small tin can filled with glass, sealed and attached to a stick. It may not sound impressive, but somehow Mario managed to turn the simple instrument into an uber-maraca.

After sitting in with the pair for one number, Fleck brought out bluegrass violinist Casey Drieson to join them on “Kinetsa.” Drieson was initially absent in the mix. Frustrated, he walked across the stage and started playing into D’Gary’s microphone. The cheers that erupted were so great that when Drieson tried to retreat, Fleck urged him to take another solo.

(Above: The six-string wonders of D’Gary.)

Vusi Mahlesela came out after a 20-minute intermission. His guitar style was closest to the Western tradition. It’s easy to imagine him in the South African equivalent of a Greenwich Village coffee shop. A former anti-apartheid activist, Mahlesela sang in an expressive tenor. Like most of the performers, he didn’t sing much in English, but he put his whole body into what he said.

The joyous “Thula Mana” was dedicated to Mahlesela’s grandma, who protected him from the Afrikaans police force. If Fleck added the least to this pairing, it is only because Mahlesela’s presence was so complete.

Finally, Fleck introduced kora master Toumani Diabate. A native of Mali, Diabate has collaborated with Taj Mahal and Bjork and was the best-known of Fleck’s guests. Clad in a traditional golden robe, Diabate’s instrument was the most traditional and formal of the night. After a long solo piece, Fleck came out and urged Diabate to explain his instrument. Diabate’s kora looked like an industrial broomstick with many protruding strings stuck in a gigantic half-gourd. After demonstrating the four-finger picking technique (thumbs and two index fingers), Diabate slowly built a song starting with the bassline, adding melody and finally improvisation.

Dierson returned – this time with a working mic – to join Fleck and Diabate on “Throw Down Your Heart.” Banjo and kora work well together because both instruments are treble-heavy and prone to twang. Playing double stops on the low strings, Dierson’s violin was a pleasant counterpoint that added fresh textures.

The night ended with everyone onstage together for an improvised jam and Mahlesela’s “When You Come Back,” a tribute to his home continent.

Western artists have been mining African music since before they wouldn’t play Sun City, but Fleck may be the most accommodating. He acted as less a host than a facilitator who was honored to sit in with his guests.

The collaborations were so organic it seemed they could have taken place anywhere – the studio, living room, outside. They just happened to be experienced in the Uptown this night.

(Below: Toumani Diabate rocks the kora.)

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Blues for Tourists and Purists

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Blues legend Taj Mahal put on a performance as grand as his namesake Friday night at Crossroads KC.

The Taj Mahal Trio opened with an instrumental that showcased Mahal’s tasty fretwork. Mahal may not win a notes-per-minute competition, but few musicians are as articulate on their instruments.

From there the trio delivered 90 minutes of great blues that was firmly rooted in the genre’s sharecropping/plantation origins, but wasn’t afraid to detour into world music and pop melodies. The result was an evening that pleased both the tourists and the purists.

The set started strongly with “Done Changed My Way of Thinking,” and “Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” which featured Mahal on a hollow body electric guitar. “Blues With a Feeling” found Mahal seated behind a keyboard and delivering part of the song in French. Mahal’s instrument of choice often played the dual role of both the seducer and the seduced, and he wasn’t afraid to sprinkle dirty old man jokes between numbers or moan in a rasp that recalled Howlin Wolf to make his point.

The highlights came when Mahal strapped on an acoustic guitar and performed, in succession, “Fishin’ Blues,” “Queen Bee” and “Corrina.” He said good night, but within a few minutes he started strumming “M’Banjo” and then led his rhythm section through a spirited “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond” and “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes,” a beautiful pop ballad that in an alternate world would have been a big hit.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the turnout. Crossroads was only a third full — about 700 people — and most of the crowd resembled the lot that used to turn up at the old Grand Emporium. Mahal deserved a wider audience, but those who were there knew they were lucky to be hearing a legend, still in his prime, do what he does best.

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