A Date With Señor Blues

Taj Mahal is one artist who can't be defined, and that's because he can't be contained. His music has always demonstrated a grasp of country blues, raw electric blues, rock 'n' roll, pop, Hawaiian, Afro-Caribbean, reggae and even the occasional lullaby. He plays at least a dozen instruments (and plays them well), has scored a Broadway show and has acted in several movies. Add his total of 36 albums and six Grammys, the fact that he speaks five languages, and the agriculture and animal husbandry degree that he earned at the University of Massachusetts and you're getting damn near Jeffersonian.

While not really breaking new ground on his latest release — it is, after all, a live disc, which means there are going to be some favorites revisited — Shoutin' in Key finds Taj Mahal doing what he does best: leaving an audience feeling better than he found them. Opening and closing with instrumentals — Bill Doggett's classic "Honky Tonk" (RealAudio excerpt) and his own "Sentidos Dulce" (RealAudio excerpt) — Shoutin' in Key might be better called A Night in the Life because it really is an ear-peep slice o' life of a downtown Saturday night at the Dew Drop Inn. Or, in this case, the Mint in Los Angeles.

One-man band though he may be, Mahal has always had crackerjack musical support. Ry Cooder (co-founder with Mahal of the legendary Rising Sons) and the late Jesse Ed Davis are among those who have found themselves at the party throughout the years.

The Phantom Blues Band featured here can run with the big dogs: Drummer/producer Tony Braunagal and guitarists Denny Freeman and Larry Fulcher have worked with the likes of Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, Smokey Robinson, John Lee Hooker and the Wailers. Joined by saxophonist Joe Sublett, whose Texicali horns have been heard on recordings ranging from Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Stones to Jimmy Buffett and Buddy Guy, the group revitalizes Mahal standards such as "Leavin' Trunk" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Corrina." They also add subtle grace to the lovely original "Every Wind in the River" (RealAudio excerpt), as well as smoke and drive to two of the disc's real highlights — Hank Ballard's "The Real Hoochi Coochi Coo" and Mahal's "Woulda Coulda Shoulda" (RealAudio excerpt), which features what must be by now Mahal's unconscious Howlin' Wolf imitation.

The title of an early Taj Mahal album was Happy Just Like I Am. You'd be, too, if you spent your workdays in warm, exotic places entertaining receptive crowds who know exactly what you're about while passing your down time in warm, exotic places smoking Cubans and wearing loose clothes. Why mess with success?