Rick Mason of City Pages, Minneapolis-St. Paul
Tommorow Sound Now For Yes Music People (Groovesburg Joys)
It's been six long years since the public had a new slab from Paul Cebar to slip into the box and feel those simmering grooves effervesce into a soulful nirvana down New Orleans (or Havana) way, 2001's live disc SUCHAMUCH captured the rambunctious in-the-flesh pleasures of Cebar, a happy seeker of all music rooted to the essence of a time or place, and his redoubtable Milwaukeeans. TOMMOROW SOUND NOW FOR YES MUSIC PEOPLE - a mouthful, but overflowing with tastiness - was hatched in studios from Wisconsin to London,but again revels in Cebar's delicious synthesis of vintage R&B, soul, New Orleansiana, Cubano Bop, slithery Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and tantalizing esoterica from around the globe.
At heart, Cebar is a musicologist who unearths obscure nuggets that he can't resist playing, complete with twists culled from all the other great stuff he's found. Here he rides a sweet, Sam Cooke-style voice into the soul-rich "I'm Qualified", an early 60's southern hit cut in Muscle Shoals by Jimmy Hughes.(Yes,that) Nick Lowe stirs in some sharp harmonies while Bob Jennings lays gospelly organ right down it's spine.
"Hey Hey Honey" is a marvelous a capella gospel/folk tune from Virginia's Bright Lights Quartet that juggles Cebar's muscular, shouted lead about an upcoming assignation with a "long, tall yellow gal" with bristling responses in four-part harmony. "Do Me Justice", meanwhile, is a lilting, calypso-like tune from Sierra Leone's S.E. Rogie, who was king of an intoxicating local style called palm-wine music
Such intriguing covers find their ultimate fruition in Cebar's originals, which draw from myriad sources. The scintillating rhythms and brash horns of "The Gimp Sparrow" could fuel carnaval in a dozen hot spots. The funky shuffle of "The Same Dog" driven by Cebar's piquant guitar figures and written with zydeco accordianist Terrance Simien, seems to bring together Memphis, the Crescent City, Elvis Costello and The Band.
"I Got Trouble" (co-written with Michael Fleming) is more straightforward New Orleans, a tale of hapless woe that could have come from Jessie Hill, Earl King or Lee Dorsey. It's all wonderful stuff, a funky global tour from the shores of Lake Michigan,thanks to the obsessively curious Cebar and his Milwaukeeans, easily among the country's most underappreciated working musicians
* * * * *
Chris Rose Of The New Orleans Times-Picayune
The 60-Second Interview February 22,2008
A bracing,fiercely creative-if all too infrequent-voice on the New Orleans music circuit is a native Wisconsinitenamed Paul Cebar. Locals know his longtime band as the Milwaukeeans, but he has recently changed its name to Tomorrow Sound.
The web site cdbaby.com describes Cebar's latest record as "the best batch yet of an endangered strain of fortified, intensified, fully jacked-up, roaring, cooing and exceedingly personal music-making fro a singular midwestern master."
I could not say it better myself. Paul Cebar and Tomorrow Sound are playing gigs Feb. 29
(leap day!) at Rock N Bowl and then again (for free) on Mar. 1 at 5 P. M. at the Louisiana Music Factory in the French Quarter.
This I will Tell you: I'm a fan. A big fan. we chatted by e-mail earlier this week
You keep coming back,and keep coming back,to New Orleans.What’s the draw?
It’s the capital of rhythm culture in these raggedy states. Unlike virtually every other American city, it has it’s own food, it’s own music, it’s own architecture; it’s affinities with other grand musical hubs that I’ve had the pleasure to visit (Havana, Salvador-Bahia, Port of Spain, Veracruz) are fascinating and seemingly inexhaustible. The sense of the coexistence of many disparate cultural eras in lively dialogue with each other is present like nowhere else that I know stateside.
Are the audiences here different than elsewhere?
If you’re already dancing in the street, getting folks to let the juices flow on the dance floor is not much of a stretch. Louisiana in general has that marvel of marvels, a thriving couple dance scene. It is implicit that the ones dancing are the one’s having the fun. Bands are inspired to meet the dancefloor with all their bells on.
Is the audience different since Katrina?
We’ve only played a couple of gigs as a band in New Orleans since the storm and those were during the Fest season last year. Maybe not the best vantage from which to judge. I know that the combination of the aftermath of the storm and the abysmal national nightmare from which we still don’t get to wake up has made me an even more grateful fan, aware of the rarity and preciousness of culture,humor,intelligence et al….
The Jazzfest thing. Why don’t you play there every year?
As for Jazz Fest, I’ve been attending each year since ’81. (My friend Rick Steiger,a grand musician from Detroit claims that he met me at the Fest in ’80). It’s simply my high holidays. We put in an application each year in hopes of being included in the festivities but we’ve been invited only once, in 1997. (Michael Tisserand also invited me to give an interview in the Heritage area a year or so later.) I thought we acquitted ourselves rather winningly but what do I know. It’s not like we’re asking for money or anything.
Your music: Can you describe it in 50 words or less?
It’s original dance music rooted in Rhythm and Blues traditions with a pronounced emphasis on Latin, Caribbean and African inflections and a wildass regard for the flow of language. It’s an increasingly full blooded emulation of much of what is best in the music of your town with it’s own cocked hat on.
Tommorow Sound Now For Yes Music People. Just what the hell does that mean?
A friend of mine (Paul Finger) while on a recent trip to India somehow happened upon a circus banner painter by the name of Salim Khan in a small town in Uttar Pradesh. He commissioned him to paint a banner from a photo of me that he’d hurriedly taken just prior to his departure. We’d often joked about just what kind of music I played. In the tightly formatted, rigidly marketed present day record world, my pal asserted that we offered TOMORROW SOUND NOW FOR YES MUSIC PEOPLE. Mr Khan ran with it bringing his exuberant misspelling gifts into the bargain and thus, TOMMOROW SOUND NOW FOR YES MUSIC PEOPLE. All you No Music People out there, we’ve got something for you, too. In the immortal words of Sonny Boy Williamson, “You can call it your mammy if you want to”. It’s also a little nod to Nick Lowe’s PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE. Incidentally, the grand Nick chimes in on background vocals on one of the tunes on the album.
Speak to me of the magic and allure of New Orleans music.
We had the great pleasure during this past Mardi Gras week of seeing the inestimably musical Allen Toussaint not once but twice (With a small band in Milwaukee and solo in Green Bay) and everything that has set me afire through the years about New Orleans music came welling on up. By the time he launched into Prince Partridge’s HOW COME YOUR DOG DON”T BARK I was desitively where I need to be. (Do you remember that record on the juke at Buster Holmes on Burgundy? I’ve only seen one other copy!) From my first visit in ’78 when a vague notice in the Picayune led me to the human parade that was the old Tipitina’s to witness an army fatigue- clad, fully eyepatched James Booker in the middle of the floor commandeering a Hammond organ ( with no accompaniment as I recall) through my last visit, the music has hit me where I live. Boundlessly humorous, sly, ingeniously relaxed, insouciantly rambunctious.
Jessie Hill’s four tambourine attack (which I tried hard to emulate on the new record), Earl King’s sartorial and tonsorial resplendence, the offhand back-alley majesty of Dave Bartholomew’s imperial stage presence (and that phrasing, oh that phrasing!), Danny Barker’s deadpan night people hijinx, Irma’s ability to fill the room with glory without even opening her mouth all the way, the Dozen at the Glass House where everything was reborn, David Lastie, Smokey Johnson, and Alvin Robinson on a dirt floor in the back room at Jerry’s up the street from Chez Helene, Snooks throwing his fingers at the strings and playing anything and everything with some very rough semblance of a fraction of the lyrics and the very essence of the tunes, Lil Millet at Le Bon Temps Roulet , Tom McDermott and Evan lightly lilting out the connections, the return of Betty Harris, Willie Tee singing DEDICATED TO YOU…. Ah, the wonders!
Mid City Lanes:It’s a magical place. Tell me about it.
An improbable haven from the ghosts of the rats running through the hardware store down below at the very least. Boozoo, Beau Jocque, Snooks with George whispering in his ear and reaching around to tune his guitar, impromptu zydeco dance lessons ,intrigue, romance……Mooney inventing intensity all over again.
Why don’t you live here?
Each visit some time has been spent mulling over the delicate yet rugged allure of your dear, dear town and how I might fit within the panorama. Most of my major relationships have begun and/or ended in New Orleans. At each juncture when I’ve entertained making a move your way, I’ve had a fine band which I’ve been keen to sustain and see through. I’ve felt a loyalty to the hardy souls who’ve stuck out the thin with me to ride toward the thick. My sweet parents are more in need of my dubious snow shoveling skills…I don’t have a definite answer
You changed your band name from the Milwaukeeans to something else and weird. As someone who used to live in Wisconsin,I’m mildly miffed. What was that about?
Duke Ellington’s first band was called the Washingtonians but His Jungle Orchestra ended up bringing the dancers. I’ve spent 24 years proudly laboring under a mock provincial moniker. The idea was to present an almost impossibly cosmopolitan brand of musical derring-do under the banner of a little known, politically progressive,immigrant built, hard laboring Midwestern working man’s city. Years of “I thought you were a polka band so I didn’t come” “You must not really want to be taken seriously as a contemporary musical force with a name like that” ,or ”Oh, that’s cute” ensued. As my most recent group of Milwaukeeans has coalesced, I thought we might want to shake the wagon and rustle the bushes to somehow assert that we’ve got something new, vital and powerfully fonky to bring to you……TOMORROW SOUND We’ve got no grand branding machinery at our disposal so we can still be your Milwaukeeans,Chris
Note: This version of the article includes Cebar's full responses to Chris' questions. If you'd like to read the version that actually ran in the paper please see: www.nola.com
* * * * *
The Onion AV Calendar Preview April 2,2008
Milwaukee native Paul Cebar is a singing, strumming, and dancing museum of musical culture and a self-styled historian of myriad musical forms. Countless sounds pour forth when Cebar and his Milwaukeeans take the stage. New Orleans, Chicago, New york, Africa, Brazil, Cuba, jump-blues, gospel, jazz, reggae, calypso, soul and vintage R&B are sterting points for something that becomes uniquely Cebar. This mishmash helps reimagine and liven up obscure classics, and the band's originals present new viewpoints on established styles. Cebar offers up 13 more inventive takes on classic soul on his album,TOMORROW SOUND NOW FOR YES MUSIC PEOPLE
* * * * *
Todd Lazarski interviews Paul for The Onion's AV Club
Yesterday Sound Tomorrow
Paul Cebar goes back to the future on his new record
If you combine the best aspects of the Chess and Checker labels, the most soulful Stax grooves, and some Afro-Cuban rhythms, all filtered through New Orleans, you might end up with Milwaukee's own Paul Cebar. Backed by his groove brothers, the Milwaukeeans, Cebar is the city's leading song-and-dance soul man. He's also potent on record- the new TOMORROW SOUND NOW FOR YES MUSIC PEOPLE sounds a bit like a more soulful James Hunter or funkier Los Lobos. Cebar sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about the new album, his ritualistic wanderlust, and the allure and influence of the Big Easy.
The A.V. Club:It's been some time since your last studio and live releases. What have you been up to?
Paul Cebar:It's been about 8 1/2 years since THE GET-GO, and five and a half since SUCHAMUCH, the live album. The band's personnel shifted five years back with the departure of Mike Kashou, Terry Vittone, and Michael Walls and the arrival of [bassist] Patrick Patterson and [percussionist] Romero Beverly. During the course of those transitions we began to record with an eye toward the next record. With the lineup stabilized we headed for Brooklyn to work with Gabe Roth [Daptone's Bosco Mann], whom I had befriended on one of his early tours with Sharon Jones. Then, we headed back home and began working with the producer, David Vartanian, whom I'd worked with mixing, editing and assembling the live album. To get it sounding uniform after all that rambling around, there was a lot of fine-tuning, remixing, editing and re-sequencing done, first with David V. and toward the stretch with Mike Hoffmann. Then a ridiculous label search for a doggone long-ass time. And voila!
AVC:You also did some home recording, right?
PC:We were touring out East and I started hollering "Knock It To Me Now" while pumping gas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I'd been working on a series of instrumental recordings built off of sub-par handheld tape recorders, boomboxes and samples and "Knock it..." seemed to want to exist in that world, with a nod in from [drummer] Reggie Bordeaux and Dave V. "Spread That Sugar" was inspired by some "advice" offered to me by Olu Dara, and took initial shape on a car recording that was augmented by drums we recorded at a house we used to stay in in Pittsburgh, and then melded at Dave's studio. Subsequently, the band has turned it into a live highlight a few funky miles down the the track from the crypto-mysterio
version on the disc.
AVC:Jim Macnie of the Village Voice once wrote that your music has "it's heart somewhere in the 5th ward of New Orleans." Is New Orleans music still a big influence for you?
PC:New Orleans has always been a touchstone for me since my first visit back in '78. I've made an annual visit to Jazzfest as something of a religious holiday since either '80 or '81. i actually met the writer of that blurb while driving him and a friend to the 5th ward to see a very early performance of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
AVC: The new record seems to cover a lot of other physical territory as well.
PC: In recent years, since the last studio record, I've made a return trip to Cuba, a visit to carnival in Trinidad, four trips to Mexico, and a grand visit, with the assistance of Milwaukee visual artist, Gerald Duane Coleman, to Salvador, Bahia in Brazil. all of these were undertaken in an effort to follow my heart to the music and feel. Also, I'm hoping that all my time driving the van around the country and shouting it out has added up to a coherence and clarity to my process that probably doesn't come any other way.
* * * * *
Dave Hoektra of the Chicago Sun Times
Cebar is Milwaukee
given day begins at Cebar's apartment in the East Town neighborhood,
several blocks northeast of downtown. His nine-room, fourth floor apartment
is packed with 14,000 albums, 2,000 45s, hundreds of music books and
several guitars. "A place like this (circa 1906) becomes a bargain
because of walk-up status," Cebar cracked. "Eight flights
* * * * *More from Mr Hoekstra
The dance music of Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans is something regional clubgoers have taken for granted, like faint lights and fully krausened beer. But Cebar is making some of the most vital music of his career, fronting a new band that embraces hip-hop, reggae and old-school soul.Its a different band.
an evolution," Cebar said last week from Milwaukee. "The last
member to go was Terry Vittone, who left two years ago New Year's. He
was playing lap steel and additional guitar. But rather than add another
member, I pared back and put the focus on rhythm. And its more focused
on the idiosyncratic guitar work from the guy up front [Cebar]."
* * * * *
Pamela Murray Winters of the Washington Post - August 2003
The band took the Rams Head Tavern stage Friday for three hours of jubilant, percussive music..... "Their blend of African and South American sounds placed them worlds away from the other Hawaiian-shirted throngs. Cebar currently tours with two percussionists, Reggie Bordeaux and conguero Romero Beverly, and they joined bassist Patrick Patterson for beats that were more lively than heavy. With Cebar on guitar and Bob Jennings on saxophone, keyboards and accordion, the result was full-on, pan-ethnic party music. Whether with a palm-wine song from Sierra Leone's SE Rogie, a reggae reinvention of "Second That Emotion" or Cebar's own soul/jazz/rock-influenced songs, the Wisconsinites seemed to have gone south from the Cheese State to form their own Bourbon Street second-line parade.
Cebar himself started slow and easy, with a( ....... )voice soon revealing
itself to be a flexible and compelling instrument, particularly on his
solo encores. The quiet eye at the center of this clamorous hurricane,
he reveled more and more in the rhythms as the show progressed. During
"Wasabi," as Jennings pounded on the keys, the frontman performed
a charming, idiosyncratic take on the Bus Stop, thrusting and hitching
as his guitar, unneeded, dangled at his waist.
Tom Cheyney of the LA Weekly - July 2003
" If you need more groove after getting trancey with the Afro Celts on the Santa Monica Pier, then pop up Wilshire to catch a couple of sound collectives from our country's prodigious midsection. Although his band's name suggests oompah rather than git-go. Paul Cebar has been a primary investigator and promulgator of funky Afro-Carib-inflected Americana since the '80's. It's been a while since he's played here, but Cebar stays vital, putting his good foot forward from Green Bay to Baltimore to the Big Easy. Whether he's checking for holes in the love bucket, building it on up from a firm foundation of love, or marveling at a sweet thing who's twice little 16, Cebar wryly shines his lyrical high beams on the murky byways of the hetero heart. July 2003
Jim Macnie, The Village Voice - 2002
regionalists are dreamers, and while this group of rhythm rounders
* * * * *
Here are a couple of reviews that Paul has written for onmilwaukee.com when heroes have come to town:
Allen Toussaint Live at The Pabst Theater
Saturday, February 17th, 2007
Reviewed by Paul Cebar
Let me begin this review with a bit of a disclaimer. Near the end of the 70’s, I had the great pleasure to work my way into the captivating world of playing in a band by rubbing shoulders with my fellow R&B Cadets (John Sieger, Robin Pluer, Mike Sieger, Cy Costabile et al.).
Aside from John’s wonderful original music, the band’s repertoire was the result of a headlong effort to discover and rediscover the wonders of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s R&B. At certain times in the life of the band, fully half of the non-original material that the band performed came from the pen of one Allen Toussaint.
As Elvis Costello so craftily demonstrated this past year on his bracing,”The River In Reverse”, collaboration with Mr. Toussaint, in his own reticent, self-effacing, seemingly offhand though effortlessly elegant manner, Allen Toussaint has crafted an enormously expansive body of work that rewards scrutiny and re-examination with an impossibly winning mixture of light-heartedness, gut-level soul searching and sly, streetside philosophizing. Funky as hell to boot .
A quintessential writer-arranger (and virtuosic pianist), Toussaint first made his mark as a wizardly, behind the curtain creator of vehicles for an eccentric grab bag of insouciant streetwise characters in that most colorful hotbed of street level eccentricity that was late 50’s - early 60’s New Orleans. While allowing the likes of Lee Dorsey, Ernie K. Doe, Benny Spellman and truly countless others to “keep it real”, Toussaint’s delicious craft allowed him to keep it dreamy, debonair and ever so modest. Irresistable, in a word.
Fitting then, that on this his first headlining tour in an awfully long time if not ever, Allen and his lean 5-piece band (more on that in a minute) saw fit to launch into a medley to introduce those less familiar in the audience with the scope of the initial burst of creativity that put his collaborators on the map and his nuanced musicality at the root of many a later musical development.
Beginning with “A Certain Girl”, featuring an effective interpolation of Rhapsody In Blue in his piano solo, proceeding through “Mother-In-Law” (both tunes originally recorded by Ernie K Doe), followed by a pungent “Fortune Teller” (cut originally by Benny Spellman) punctuated by a caustic guitar solo from New Orleans veteran Renard Poche, romping through “Working In A Coalmine” (written for the impish auto mechanic, Lee Dorsey) during which Allen demanded and immediately got the audience’s help on the background vocal “whoops”(“I need my whoops”was how he phrased it) and finishing with a reprise of “A Certain Girl”,this was musicmaking of high spirits, loving memory and spare mastery.
After recounting Benny Spellman’s amusing arrogance in the wake of his role as the bass voice on K Doe’s “Mother-In –Law”, Toussaint slid into “Lipstick Traces”, his vehicle for Spellman, replete with a lovely, searching ”Won’t you come on home” bridge after which he quickly remarked, ”I did get Benny off my back for a couple of minutes with that one”.
Then, a stirring version of “All These Things”,his ballad written for a very young Art Neville with a terrific unison figure executed with”Aw shucks,that was nothing” aplomb by the seasoned combo.
After explaining that this tune was one of his entrees to the country market through a cover by Joe Stampley, he then self-deprecatingly mentioned that his recording of the following number sold 5 copies but that didn’t matter once Betty Wright recorded it and took it to the upper reaches of the R&B charts.
A storming version of the miraculous “Shoorah,Shoorah” ensued. He then spoke of the inspiration provided by a sandy-haired Scotsman whose genuine soulfulness and reliance upon warm Pabst tickled him into writing a few of his favorite tunes. (Though he never mentioned his name, this was the woefully under-recognised Frankie Miller.)
Cue “Brickyard Blues (Play Something Sweet)” and it’s plea for directness plus that wonder of a bridge. ”It’s enough to make a light in the dark, It’s enough to make a bite into a bark….”
Then, addressing the ”plenty of curses and lots of blessings” of the Katrina experience; one of the latter being the by-product of bringing Toussaint and his band out of New Orleans and into the Pabst tonight. He spoke of the experience of working with Costello and of Elvis’ encouraging recognition of the near prophetic prescience of Allen’s back catalog. (Toussaint is far too modest to speak of his own work as prophetic, however.)
He prayerfully slipped into his curbside entreaty,”Freedom For The Stallion” and damned if it didn’t strike my ear as the crafty and soothing elder brother to Curtis Mayfield’s masterful ”People Get Ready”. The Pabst is a fine dark place for crying tears of joy and otherwise.
“Freedom For The Stallion,Freedom for the Mare and her Colt
Freedom for the Baby Child who has not grown old enough to vote
Lord , Have Mercy, What you gonna do
About the people who are praying to you?
They’ve got men making laws that destroy other men
They make Money God,It’s a Doggone Sin
Oh Lord ,You’ve Got To Help Us Find A Way”
Then, into “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” initially recorded for Lee Dorsey’s “Yes We Can” album and last year, the centerpiece of “The River In Reverse”. An unblinkered examination of our responsibility to each other in terms much more playful than most such things,
“What happened to the Liberty Bell
I heard so much about?
Did it really ding dong?
It Must Have Dinged Wrong
It Didn’t Ding Long
With a reminder that it’s Carnival Time, the maestro and his crew paid a visit to the kingdom of one of his mentors, Professor Longhair, in the guise of a medley of “Big Chief”and “Tipitina” offered instrumentally with heartbreaking minor key restatements of the themes in a ruminative, meditative fingering of the grain of the experiential weight of these ostensible frolics. Intimations of loss, of the thinker abstracted from the festivities, of the flight of fancy…………..followed by a quick glance at “Yes We Can” with a delightful, rapid-fire accelerating vocal duet with tenor saxophonist Amedee “Breeze” Castenell.
Following the introduction of band members, Chris Severin on bass, Herman Le Beau on drums, Renard Poche on guitar and the aforementioned “Breeze in Db” on saxophone, Toussaint began to muse with pianistic punctuation about trips he, his father and siblings had taken ”out to the country where the old folk live”. Beyond the reaches of electricity,”none of that big B flat Big City Hum.”
Sketching a heirarchy of Creole forebears, ”This was before the world belonged to children”…”We didn’t know grown folk lied yet”, he rhapsodically conjured the extended family as self-sufficient and ever so contentedly sitting on the porch looking to the moonlight at play in the leaves above, “that soft sweet light show shining”.
Drifting into the near falsetto frailty of “Southern Nights” and forever rescuing it from the overplayed, glib vicissitudes of Glen Campbell’s lucrative hit version, this was the vulnerable,enormous beating heart of a grand storyteller sweetly intoning his long-hidden empathetic embrace of the ineffable thickness of the world. Among other things. With a full band fanfare of the theme, it was off to the wings with a standing ovation.
Then, as an encore, two tunes that have played large roles in others’ repertoires ( Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs to name a couple ).”What Do You Want The Girl To Do?”, a laceratingly self-critical examination of one’s cowardice in the face of unconditional love. And “What Is Success?’, an examination of the tangled motives of Art and Finance couched in a tune more lilting than it has any right to be. "Truly believing and trying over and over again.” Ah, the gift economy!
Another glance at “Southern Nights” with an especially piquant two-fisted piano storm and off into the night.
The stripped down 5-piece band offered a tantalizing glimpse into the playfulness and exploratory vigor of Toussaint’s process. I’ve made pilgrimages to encounter the spectacle and pageantry of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans performances replete with scores of impeccably scored horns, choruses of lusty background singers and an occasionally attendant surfeit of Vegas-like glitz and superficiality. Miraculously, virtually none of that tang of the tawdry clogged the musical palate last evening. His is a fragile and intimate muse. What a lean dream. Bravo and huzzah a thousand times.
* * * * *
“YOU CAME HERE ‘CAUSE IT WAS GONNA HAPPEN!”
Taj Mahal at the Pabst Theater
Thursday, September 14
Halfway through his playfully masterful seventeen song set Thursday night at The Pabst, Taj Mahal paused to remind the audience just why they’d come. “You came here ‘cause it was gonna happen.” And happen it most certainly did.
From the opening instrumental shuffle reminiscent of T-Bone Walker replete with his signature head-wagging, hip churning physicality through the thoroughly lovely island inflected lilt of “Loving In My Baby’s Eyes,” his encore, Taj embodied his grand, unassuming, but carnally persuasive vision of the living African diaspora.
“Thought we’d open right up with the blues, get your blood boiling,” he remarked before launching into “Done Changed My Way Of Living,” his first vocal number of the night. (As a footnote, that number is a particular highlight of his most recent album MKUTANO, a collaborative project recorded in Zanzibar with the Cultural Musical Club. The Cultural Musical Club, on their debut tour of the U.S., will coincidentally be performing this Sunday at 1 P.M. as part of the Global Union Festival at Humbolt Park.) It was clear from the git that we were in for an easy flowing pageant of hard-won but delightfully casual mastery.
This decade has unfolded as a grand return to the guitar for Mr. Mahal. After spending much of the nineties demonstrating his front man prowess whilst traveling with the Phantom Blues band, Taj has stripped back to a trio format and rushed into the breach with a stinging, ringing, and altogether righteous single-line solo style that is a most welcome complement to his unparalleled rhythmic finger-style approach.
In the vocal department he slides between his own clear impassioned upper range to a burnished, intimating,ever so masculine purr with stops at all stations in between including a dead-on Howlin’Wolf-inspired nasal shake. This chameleon like shading (which could come off as mere trickeration in lesser hands) was put to grand effect in an ominously throbbing tale of a lover so fine, “You did a rat-ta-tat tattoo on this heart of mine. You make a strong man holler, make a weak man lose his home”. Paced by Kester Smith’s clenched hi-hat and the insistent, dead-simple throb of Bill Rich’s bass, Taj turned the wolf loose on the strong man and delivered the weak man line with an excruciating tenderness reminiscent of his ballad singing on his landmark THE REAL THING album of 1971.
The glory of seeing this versatile performer forty years after his emergence on the scene is in encountering the enduring sass and fervor of his earliest work enriched and informed by the kind of gravity, authority, and offhand delight one achieves only through the sort of tireless devotion to exploration he has exhibited through the twists and turns of a restless, searching career.
Bill Rich, who played on the aforementioned 1971 release and with Taj for two decades following that, is the kind of steady foil that allows Taj’s rhythmic nods and feints to starkly charm and sting. Their ease and lightheartedness with one another is a joy to behold.
Trinidadian born Kester Smith anchored Taj’s sublime Caribbean-inflected bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s and his subtle, implied Carnival is just the ticket for their reinvigoration of their prescient previous breakthroughs.
Years ago, Taj remarked at a workshop that African-Americans use the song to get to singing. Through the course of his set, familiar lines, blues commonplaces, would find themselves inflected in stirringly singular ways in different tunes, riffs and rhythmic displacements against steady backdrops reinforced a fresh and open-ended sense of play. One delightful exchange came in the hypnotically insistent theme called “Zanzibar” with a lovely, tiptoeing, increasingly abstracted conversation between Taj’s amplified acoustic and Rich’s chiming harmonics on his electric bass.
Able to draw the audience into singing with him at a moments notice, switching tone on his guitar conjuring the starkness of John Lee Hooker one moment, the snap of Albert King the next, the impossible tenderness of Mississippi John Hurt or his own pan-Caribbean Joseph Spence-informed dancing hybrid of a thump (An absolutely efflorescent thicket of a syncopated guitar solo on his still glorious pulse-beat “Corinna” rushes to mind), Sublimity is close at hand and in plain view of the alley whenever Taj Mahal is in town. May he quickly return.