Growing up on my dad’s classic rock records, which were then commandeered by my older brother, and then by me, I’ve long felt a deep connection and admiration for the music of a bygone era that I wasn’t even a part of.
So when I heard Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, or Taj Mahal, was playing at City Winery, I knew I had to be there.
I’ve held on tight to a burnt CD I made of Taj tunes that skips horribly, yet I can’t find the will to toss it. One might even say I live in the past with my 2002 Honda CR-V and CD player that gets more action than any other function on my dash.
Taj never quite hit the mainstream that other artists did of his era, but make no mistake: the man belongs in the same conversations as the Neil Youngs, Creedence Clearwater Revivals, Allman Brothers, and so on. Of course further along in his career he incorporated more world music and sounds to his repertoire, but he could hang with the best blues and country-type rockers of that time.
At the ripe age of 77, Taj played not one, but a pair of shows Friday night: the first at 6:30, the second at 10:00. I would attend the latter. Once we were seated, the anticipation set in- but first I had to sit through the opening act, which for a brief period I huffed and puffed about. I should’ve known better.
Trey Hensley and Rob Ickes took to stage left, Hensley on acoustic guitar, and Ickes on Dobro, and sweet hell did they get down to brass tacks. After a barn-burning opening number, the two slid into the Grateful Dead classic, “Brown Eyed Women.” They exhibited exceptional harmonies with each other, an incredibly balanced tone, and were clearly masters of their craft.
Hensley is one of those special few whose prodigious picking led him to debut at the Opry at 11-years-old, and played at The White House in high school. And when listening to Hensley, it’s immediately clear what he was born to do.
Ickes was no slouch either. Ickes holds the record for the most awards in International Bluegrass Music Awards history, holding steady at 15 for Best Dobro player. Hensley would rattle off the many A-list musicians Ickes has played with over the years. “He’s the only person with both Doc Watson and David Lee Roth on their resume.” I would wager a pretty penny on that sentiment.
“Any Grateful Dead fans in the house?” Despite already playing a Dead tune, they asked before picking the ever so familiar opening riff of “Friend of the Devil.” This led into a frenzied instrumental medley of “Fire on the Mountain,” to which Hensley changed the tones on his guitar with the tap of his foot with each measured solo, noodling with psychedelic precision like Jerry, much to the delight of the audience. Hensley and Ickes had been touring with Taj, and had just put out an album of their own, World Full of Blues.
The duo thanked Taj and the crowd, and then we waited.
The sophisticated and intimate listening room that is City Winery had seemingly every table full amidst the flickering candlelight, and ready for their late night musical delight. Each small table donned one green wine bottle and one clear flip-cap type growler of water along with a respective candle. The green wine bottle had a little card dangling from the cork explaining service request protocol, which almost lit ablaze from the small City Winery shot glass maintaining the small flame. I hadn’t eaten in hours, so the whizzing wafts of tantalizing treats past my head did my stomach no favors. “That’s got to be the Braised Duck Tacos. Is that the Chorizo Poutine? That’s definitely the Chicken Saltimbocca.”
After a brief intermission, Taj slowly strutted out in his yellow Hawaiian shirt and fedora to roaring applause within the quaint venue. The white-bearded lumbering legend took a seat on the chair in front, which was surrounded by a half-dozen different guitars. His band flanked him wide and very much off to the side, with the drummer being blocked behind a clear folding partition.
“How’re you doing Taj?” Yells a man in the far back.
“Ohh, I’m alright. Just a little croakey is all.” The crowd cheered.
He picked up what looked like a Gretsch, and the band kicked off into some of his later- years island tunes. “We just got back from the Caribbean, and thought we’d bring back some sunshine with us,” he says in his classic gritty voice.
“Now this one’s for all the women with critical mass in the backfield, and the men who love it.”
I would think Taj to be one of the few artists who can get away with such a statement these days. And that’s what makes Taj, Taj. His jokes, his charm, and his good-time-havin’ personality. He held permanent smiles on the faces in the crowd damn near the whole time, which of course is to the contrary of one of his classics which he’d soon fire into, “Cakewalk Into Town.”
“I had the blues, so bad one time, it put my face in a permanent frown
“You know I’m feelin’ so much better I could cakewalk into town.”
Roughly around this time, an enthusiastic bespectacled man drug a chair up next to me, and bobbed his head and smacked the table to the groove. After the song, he’d bust out the two-fingers-in-the-mouth whistle at shrill volume.
“What’re ya taking notes for man?” He asked.
“Oh for a local online publication, Music Mecca.”
“Oh right on! Did you know Taj went to school for agriculture and animal husbandry?”
“Nope, didn’t know that.”
He would go on to talk to me a bit more about Taj’s other achievements and songs of his, while the actual man was on stage playing songs of his. As the night progressed, this particular gentleman would delve into a drunken spiral, to the point of talking to his buddies with excessive volume and curse words in a setting that doesn’t match such behavior, and eventually be seen dancing in an obscure corner with a few others. The tall young waiter kept tracing his trail back around our area, sweating bullets thinking this man would try to skip the bill. One could see on the early twenty-something’s face confrontation was not in his deck of cards.
“And if you haven’t heard your favorite yet, you will.” Taj says in his stony voice.
For the latter portion of his songs, Taj strapped on what looked like a guitar made out of melted pennies. It even had lines of symmetrical small holes spanning the top half of it, looking like you could slide pennies in, like some guitar bank.
“Cakewalk Into Town” melted into another stone cold classic, “Fishin’ Blues.” This really got the crowd of primarily privileged Caucasians excited. The hits just kept rolling, as he brought the duo of Hensley and Ickes back in to assist him with “Corinna,” and the rest to follow.
“Now how about that? And we ain’t done yet!” Taj says to hollering applause and “Hell yeahs!”
Being the nostalgic type, I look at guys like Taj Mahal who are approaching their eighth decade, and when looking at the old man on stage in front of me, I try to wrap my head around the fact this is the same youthful, full of life, determined face I’ve seen in The Rolling Stones’ Rock N’ Roll Circus from 1968, or standing on a rock in an exceptionally strange yet damn cool pose with his white fedora and matching pants, his signature Hawaiian shirt draping down for his Evolution album cover in 1978. It trips me out, and for whatever reason, I just feel so oddly sentimental and honored to have had the chance to witness such a talent from an era we’ll never see again.
The Taj Mahal Quartet would close out their set with the ever serene, blissful, and entrancing island instrumental, “Sleepwalk.” A man Taj called “Roberto,” who quietly tore up lead guitar duties all night, would utterly slay the pedal steel in this number to the point of raising goosebumps, making Santo and Johnny proud. Upon Googling, “popular slack key pedal steel island instrumental song,” the first three videos displayed would be this “Roberto” gentleman, otherwise known as Hawaiian slack key maestro Bobby Ingano.
I would argue “Sleepwalk” is the most beautiful instrumental in the world. Close your eyes, listen to “Sleepwalk,” and you’re immediately drifting along white sand beaches on a cloud, embracing the island breeze with a grin, a thousand miles away from your troubles. It wraps you up like a newborn baby, swaddled in mother’s arms, surrounded by loving eyes and hopeful smiles. Everything is pure, nothing really matters, and you drift away to paradise.
Thank you Taj Mahal for delivering decades of incredible music along with your infectious positivity and charm, and being a pillar of modern music history that’s touched so many.