Raitt, Taj Mahal Bring Rockin’ Blues to the Bowl The double bill of innovative music sends fans dancing in the aisles
By L. Paul Mann, Noozhawk Contributor | Published on 09.22.2009
The blues genre was alive and well at the Santa Barbara Bowl on a sultry September Saturday night. A double bill of blues innovators Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal nearly filled the house.
A mostly mature crowd was anything but sedate as the audience responded with loud cheers, singing and dancing throughout the show.
Henry St. Clair Fredericks, better known by his stage name Taj Mahal, opened the show with a smoking set, highlighting his near half-century career.
He is well-known for blending different genres of music with traditional blues, to create a unique and ever-changing sound. A master chameleon of the blues, his influences include African, Caribbean, Hawaiian and rock music. He was immersed in music at an early age. His father, of the same name, was a well-known West Indian jazz composer, but was killed in an accident when Taj was 11. His mother was a gospel singer.
Even though this city boy, born in Harlem, N.Y., showed a propensity for music as soon as he could walk or talk, he almost gave up the music world to be a farmer, after an opportunity to work on farm in Massachusetts when he was just 16. He continued a farming career through college, where he studied a variety of farm sciences. Luckily for those who love the blues, he rekindled his interest in music about the same time.
In 1964, he moved to California and formed The Rising Sons with fellow legend Ry Cooder. This may well have been one of the first commercial interracial bands to perform in public.
Taj released his first solo album in 1968. Since then, he has collaborated with a sea of superstars in the music world, including The Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Etta James. He also wrote film scores and won two Grammys, but even so has found time to “disappear” from the commercial music world to live life and invent new sounds.
When I photographed him appearing at the massive Peace Sunday concert at the Rose Bowl in 1982, he was spending the decade in relative obscurity on the island of Kauai, where he fished and formed the Hula Blues Band. His special appearance in front of 100,000 music fans, along with most of the top American rock stars of the day, including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, was in keeping with his support of political activism for worthy causes. In addition to this anti-nuclear rally, he supported many other causes, such as Farm Aid.
At the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday night, Taj displayed his masterful command of an immense catalog of music and displayed his unique thumb-and-middle-finger picking style. He had excited fans dancing in the aisles.
Bonnie Raitt sits down for a short acoustic set with Taj Mahal during their concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. (L. Paul Mann photo)
But the show had just begun, and the best was yet to come. Raitt, no stranger to the venue, took to the stage amid thunderous applause. Another innovator of the blues, Raitt has been recording music for nearly 40 years, releasing her first self-titled album in 1971. Also coming from a musical family, her father, John, was a Broadway star and her mother a pianist.
Like Taj,Raitt faced an early struggle in her musical career trying to break the status quo of musical genres. As a young red-headed Quaker girl, it was tough in the beginning to get people to take her seriously as a blues performer. With persistence and patience, she melded different musical genres to create her unique brand of blues music, finally meeting great commercial success, including nine Grammy awards and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also shares Taj’s passion for political activism and has contributed her talents to many social causes.
After quickly winning over the crowd at the Bowl with her powerful, funky, jammin’ blues band, she sat down for a short acoustic set with Taj. It was almost the highlight of the evening. The two of them picked through a trio of blues classics and harmonized in passionate blues vocals that could make the hair stand up on the back of any fan of this musical genre.
Next, Taj stepped off, and Raitt’s brilliant band returned to the stage. Playing in her trademark bottle-neck guitar style, she led the group into a medley of her biggest hit songs, and the crowd went wild. Fans danced and sang along to each familiar tune. Just when the crowd thought it couldn’t get any better, Taj and his savvy band of musicians returned to the stage for a super jam with Raitt and her players. Rolling through a jamming encore medley of songs, the explosive sound sent most everyone in the crowd into a clapping and dancing frenzy.