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Concert Review | Taj Mahal


Though he was born Henry St. Claire Fredericks Jr. in Harlem, blues musician Taj Mahal took the name of the famous Indian mausoleum as a teenager after he had dreams about it.

He probably didn’t know it at the time, but that new moniker previewed what would become a voracious placelessness. Mahal’s greatest strength is his penchant for absorbing and reflecting music from all over the world.

This jet-setting approach to genre and history aptly began the 2024 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival — Mahal’s Friday, June 21 performance at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre was the kickoff headlining show. The longtime genre chameleon, who turned 82 in May, also played here in 2009, backed by a bassist and a drummer.

This time around, he led a band of four, rounded out by a lead guitarist and a steel drum player. The latter’s breezy sonics added a brightness to each song that Mahal, typically holding a guitar in both hands, commanded from his chair.

Early on in the surprisingly interactive show, an audience member yelled out that they loved Mahal. His retort was quick.

“You better!” he said. “‘Cause I’m all you got.”

Mahal sat surrounded by string instruments in their stands the way a grandfather rests in a chair with children at his feet. He considered which to pick up before each song — “I just feel my way through the night” — and landed much applause when he eventually selected a plucky banjo.

He used it to launch into a stomping Irish folk tune called “Roscoe’s Mule Down in Roscoe’s Barn” after remarking that “the Irish could dance!” This moment mingled with traditional blues tunes and entries like “Wild About My Lovin’,” a nearly 100-year-old ditty first recorded by Mississippi singer Jim Jackson that Mahal strummed out on the ukulele while adding frisky vocal trills.

He gripped his beloved resonator guitar for the longest stretch, churning through the gritty “Queen Bee” and “Betty and Dupree,” highlights from his recently released album “Swingin’ Live at the Church in Tulsa.”

Hearing steelpan, a Trinidadian instrument, add color to American blues cuts created a resplendent dissonance and felt like experiencing a new kind of artistic cultural synergy.

About a decade after becoming Taj Mahal, the musician’s charged-up version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” inspired a young Duane Allman to lean into his own slide-guitar playing. Mahal’s expanding interests eventually took his music into the realms of Cajun and reggae music; on 2023’s “Savoy” album, he embraced jazzy club standards.

Onstage at Kodak Hall Friday night, he leaned primarily into the concept of folk music and how it differs from region to region. He showcased little of the heft of those early blues records, opting for a much lighter and worldlier sound. As he tuned up for the swampy “Slow Drag,” he talked through the song’s cast of characters and settings — the judge, his wife, the pokey and even a hoochie.

“I’m like a sponge with music,” Mahal said late in the set, after a two-song suite of Hawaiian lap-steel numbers. “You know it when you hear it, and it feels like it’s been there all the time.”

That his career-spanning, globetrotting show opens the festival is a nice nod to his many successors, including 25-year-old blues star Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. The young Mississippi Delta performer hits the stage at East Avenue and Chestnut Street for a free show on Saturday, June 22.

Mahal’s set, meanwhile, honed in on the passing of time. He mentioned disbelief at The Temptations’ “My Girl” being 60 years old and even played late-’50s make out favorite “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny.

But as the blues tends to, Mahal’s songs were timeless, tackling love, dancing, trouble with the law and plenty of folk stories. As he presented them, he became a captain at the gears of an airplane flying all over the globe.

A pilot named Taj Mahal coasting toward Caribbean, Pacific and Irish-tinged folk-blues rhythms. How fitting.

More information about the 2024 Rochester International Jazz Festival can be found here.

Patrick Hosken is an arts writer for CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].