Sunday, August 17, 2008

Brushes with musical idols (and stray body hair)

A couple blasts from my music critic past came to mind last week: Taj Mahal and Jerry Wexler. Taj played a phenomenal show at the Santa Fe Brewing Company on Aug. 13, showcasing 40 years of talent that is unlikely to be replicated, at least any time soon. Taj plays country. He also plays the blues. He's also recorded reggae albums (see Happy to Be Just Like I Am) Indian (Mumtaz Mahal) and west African records (Kulanjan, whereon he collaborated with Toumani Diabate), though his style is so varied that you just about have to name a genre after him. "Taj music." That's about the only way to describe what the man does. And nobody else does it quite as well.

The Brewing Company's outdoor arena was packed with folks who came to hear Taj music. He didn't disappoint, ripping through classics ("Queen Bee," "Fishin' Blues") that got hundreds of asses shaking.

Taj was one of the first musicians I ever interviewed in my journalism career. It was some time in late 2003. I had listened to him since I was barely in my teens, though at the time I hid that fact from my friends like other kids hid dirty magazines from their parents. At the arguable height of grunge music -- circa '94 -- Taj wasn't cool. (What was cool? Alice in Chains, another dear, dear favorite. But anyway.)

The interview went well. Abnormally well. Taj talked for over an hour -- I'm not sure if I even asked a question -- and I eventually had to get off the phone with him. Jesus that man goes on and on. He talked a lot about how he wants his music to be a catalyst for people to make positive changes in their lives. Which, idealistic as that may sound, is easy to believe in, coming from Taj.

We met in person a few weeks later at a concert. Taj was a big guy, gregarious and smiling constantly. I think I also liked him because he looked a little like my dad. Except he's black.

Trivia: according to YouTube, Jenna Bush danced to Taj Mahal's "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes" at her wedding.

According to me, the videos below are awesome.

The first one features Taj in 1968, performing at the Rock and Roll Circus, a concert documentary that showcased the Rolling Stones and some other legendary rock groups. Taj was kind of eclipsed by the other performers on the bill (the Stones, The Who, John Lennon), but he was hardly outperformed. One thing I maybe should have asked Taj: why was he dressed like an extra from a John Wayne movie in this video?

... and what's with the Huck Finn getup in this vid?

Taj obviously raided Fela Kuti's closet for this performance.

My other brush with fame was far less triumphant. I met Jerry Wexler in a video store in Florida, where we both lived in 2005. Wexler died last week of heart failure, thus ending a very fat chapter of pop music history. He signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic Records. He produced Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Forgive the hyperbole, but the man's influence is immeasurable.

Unfortunately, and perhaps embarrassingly, none of that came up in our very brief meeting. Terry Porter, a mutual acquaintance of ours who runs Video Renaissance, introduced us. I could not stop staring at Wexler's nose hair. It was prolific and white and all I could think was: it must have been an impediment to breathing.

In last week's Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Wexler's son said he was having inscribed on Jerry's tombstone, "He changed the world." I prefer what Wexler himself said, when asked in 2000 what he would like his epitaph to read. "Two words: more bass."

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