Quite the evening. Taj Mahal (Henry Saint Clair Fredericks) played to a packed house at Evanston's Space. When I walked past the merchandise table, I took a peak at the CDs. I apologized to the man staffing the table, "Sorry, got 'em all already. He thanked me. I didn't tell him that I had them all at one time on vinyl, and I now have them all on CDs. Always great fun to be in a small club (no more than 200 people) seeing someone you've been listening to since you were 13 or 14 years old.
Taj, accompanied by Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums, came out at the appointed time, proceeding to put on a terrific show (100+ minutes). He still has chops at 74, with a voice that is as distinctive and strong as ever. No question about his playing abilities--completely on the mark. During the performance, he played a hollow-body guitar that generated incredible reverb, a National steel guitar, and an acoustic guitar. For the encore, he stepped over to an electric piano. I was a bit disappointed that he didn't pick up the banjo or the ukulele, but maybe next time.
It was a set filled with Taj standards, including Queen Bee, Gonna Move Up to the Country, (Paint My Mailbox Blue), Take a Giant Step (with a nod to Carole King and the Monkees), and Fishin' Blues, He opened the set with a beautiful blues instrumental on the hollow body guitar. He chose to close the set with Johnny Too Bad from the Mo' Roots album. He encored with a Chicago blues standard, Little Walter's Blues With a Feeling. Along the way we heard about Corina and a number of legendary characters, including a lovely guitar quote from Jimi Hendrix.
You gotta love Taj's voice and vocalizations. Very little gravel in that voice. It's smooth and rich like a Vintage Tawny Port. No one does "whoa" better. We even gotta a little scat singing. On more than a few occasions, when he dropped back from the mike, we were treated to a dead-on Wolfman Jack voice. Or was it Donald Duck?
This was the second show of the night. Taj noted that sometimes he doesn't like playing two shows in one night, but that he was feeling good tonight, which I think was the first night of a new tour that will take him and the others to the East coast. In Taj's words, you can't do this unless you are feeling good.
If there was a disappointment, it was the lack of stage commentary between songs. This man has seen a lot and played with many greats. Stories are lots of fun, and we did get a few, like the one about Marvin Gaye as a session drummer in the early days. Terry Gross, if you are reading this, do a couple of segments with Taj.
Now for the photographic aspects of the experience. I was told "No Photography" when I asked, but then when they introduced Taj, the soundman said, "Turn off your cell phones and no flash photography." Before the band came out, the soundman came upfront where we were seated. I took the opportunity to confirm that non-flash was OK. "No problem."
I had consigned myself to what I call a "fan" shot. Although I could not have had a better seat (front row at the far right end of the small stage), in front of me were three guitars mounted in stands. In the mid ground was a very prominent mike stand, a clunky chair for Taj, and then in the background were more mikes, guitars, an electric piano, and additional stage flotsam. In other words, obstructions all over the place and a cluttered background. Add to the chaos, a ceiling light pointed directly at the mike that, as I learned when I first looked through my viewfinder, projected a dark and large shadow over Taj's face when he was close to the mike.
As it turned out, it was not a bad night. The featured shot captures Taj between two guitars, with a mike stand in the middle. Always bring a 300mm lens. I love this shot. It captures a bluesman in a what appears to be a private and introspective moment. Looks like he is playing guitar, but in fact, he is at the piano. As the late Saul Leiter said to a photographer who came to photograph Leiter and his studio when the photographer tried to move an obstruction, "Don't move anything. Shoot through it." That's a paraphrase, and the longer I am in this game, the more I realize how wise Leiter was.