Taj Mahal and his Hula Blues Band, House of Blues, Las Vegas, NV- 5/7
Much like Toots Hibbert and his Maytals sit in the shadows of international reggae superstars like Bob Marley and the Wailers, quite a few electric blues legends overshadow the relaxed acoustic vibes of Taj Mahal. A legitimate great, Taj Mahal lives the blues and will not rest until everyone in the house connects with the same music he has loved and played for over 40 years. Naturally the House of Blues is a perfect spot to experience his live show, even if this House resides smack in the middle of a mega-casino resort. Bringing his Hula Blues Band to Las Vegas for the first time, Taj delivered a solid live set with a true island feel in front of the criminally half-sold Mandalay Bay audience. And whether you win or lose at the craps table, an evening with Taj Mahal never disappoints, even if, like on this particular evening, it does not overwhelm either.
A good Taj Mahal show will put a tear in your eye, ants in your pants, and a bulge in your crotch. Shaking your ass is mandatory, especially for the women. Not "creepy old man" sexual like Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis, Taj emits a wave of love and affection for both his music and his audience, who consist primarily of fortysomethings breaking out their Acapulco shirts and drinking Rum & Cokes for the first time since their last Bermudan vacation. This tour features his roadworthy Hula Blues band, an interesting ensemble seasoned with some of Hawaii's finest side musicians. Featuring steel guitar, a multi-wind-and-brass instrumentalist, and 3 ukulele players (perhaps ukulelists is the preferred nomenclature,) they created the perfect Caribbean vibe to support Taj's laidback creations.
Opening the night with a unique take on fellow under appreciated Toots & the Maytal's "Monkey Man", "Coconut Man" breached the 10-minute mark even before the call-and response "Ay-yay-yay's". Later, after an interesting dedication to "VPL's" (visible panty lines, of course,) which sounded slightly out of place as possibly newer material, a shuffling "Queen Bee" touched every soul in the house and reminded you why Taj Mahal deserves every accolade he has ever received over his Grammy-winning career. Most of the non-guitar solos went to the saxophone/pan flute/flutist, with the drummer hitting every snare, crash, or kick at precisely the right time.
Approximately a dozen songs into his Friday night set the pace slowed considerably, and the energy dip almost emptied the dance floor irreversibly. Announcing he plays three slow songs a night, not a terrible thing by any means, grouping the three calypso burners in the last third of his set tragically ceased all the hip shaking with little time to recover. His group provided subtle support all night, but subtle turned to boring quickly during the slow jams, unless you box-stepped with a loved one or nearby drunken concertgoer. One benefit of the slower tempo was the ability to pick out each ukulele, as they tended to mush together during the more upbeat numbers. Another rollicking sing-a-long in honor of the "... BLUES, ALRIGHT!" book-ended the set.
The encore "Lovin' In My Baby's Eyes" echoed the sound of a majority of Taj's set. Different than Cuban jazz and Jamaican reggae, Taj adapts the rootsy sound of America's blues with the wispy island rhythms he grew up listening to his father play. Prevalent in his compositions, Taj almost always references his family relationships and cultural heritage, including trips "gone fishin'" with his dad while presumably not pining over matters of the heart (Women, what would the blues be without them? Or perhaps, would the blues exist without them?).
Friday night House of Blues shows in Las Vegas must end by 11:00 PM. Not because of a curfew, a concept that has always eluded this particular locale. Instead the venue transforms into an 80s dance party (and a disco dance party each Saturday for good measure,) and doors open promptly. As Taj's fans leave they pass a line of young and old partygoers ready to shake, rattle, and roll to a nameless DJ playing the same one-hit wonders and 80s mistakes everyone has heard a million times over. How can the 1980's get a recurring gig while Taj cannot fill the joint one weekend night a year? Sorely unknown, this legend's shining moments with the Hula Blues Band were well worth this trip to the Strip. Even if the end proved too subtle, too late.