When asked what to expect when his four-piece band plays Tupelo Music Hall this weekend, Taj Mahal playfully quotes few lines from Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” singing, “You can dance if you want to, you can leave your friends behind, because if your friends don’t dance then they’re no friends of mine.”
“It’s fun, interesting, exciting, and if you still know how to dance, you can dance,” he says by telephone from a tour stop in Colorado.
Taj Mahal is one of the rootsiest performers around, but his referencing a one-hit wonder from the MTV era isn’t surprising if you know his history. He once laid a slow infectious groove atop a Monkees pop song and made it the title track for one of his early releases.
That 1969 effort, Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home, was iconoclastic even for the psychedelic ’60s — a two-record set with chugging blues-rock on one disc, and another containing rough-hewn acoustic songs like “Fishin’ Blues” and “Candy Man.”
“When you put out a double album, it’s pretty much more of the same stuff. But I didn’t want to do an album that was like that. I said, ‘I have all these songs that don’t really translate that well into being electric tunes.’”
So both records came out at once. “I had no idea how ground-shaking that was to people,” Mahal says.
But then, Taj Mahal has made a career out of playing by his own rules. He claims the roots of his style came from simple necessity — Africans living on English-owned plantations learned poetry from Irish and Scots. The challenge, Mahal says, was translating it through a “hodgepodge” of African language and syntax.
“It’s only through music that people could communicate,” he says. “We’ve been mixing things up ever since we’ve been in this country. I don’t think anybody sees it back that far [but] jazz musicians all the time took classical songs and played their version of it and changed the rhythm.”
Long confined to the Deep South, the blues idiom was emerging in the early 1960s as performers like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes and Mississippi John Hurt regularly came east to appear at venues in Cambridge and the Newport Folk Festival. It was at that time that the Harlem-born, New England-raised Mahal decided to put aside a UMass degree in animal science and pursue a musical career.
“In some of the clubs I found a whole situation where people were enjoying it outside of the confines of the South,” he says.
When Mahal moved to Southern California in 1964, he settled into the Ash Grove in Venice Beach.
“That club played nothing but the real stuff,” he says. The Rising Sons, which Mahal formed with Ry Cooder and guitarist Jesse Lee Kincaid, was a regular attraction there. Touring bands often stopped by to see the wide range of performers there — everyone from Albert King to Clifton Chenier to the Firesign Theater.
The Rising Sons made a record for Columbia that was never released, but Mahal stayed with the label when he went solo. One night he was playing at the Whisky A-Go-Go, and he recognized some famous faces in the crowd.
“I’m up there playing harmonica with my eyes closed and I look out and see Mick Jagger dancing with an L.A. hottie, and Keith Richards, Eric Burdon, Chad Chandler, all with L.A. hotties … they’re in town, playing at the big arenas, and when they want to have fun, they come out to see me.”
The British embrace of American blues intrigued Mahal.
“I knew people like John Hammond and Canned Heat had recorded over there and were really excited about it, so after the set I went over to their table and they invited me to sit down and said it was brilliant and they had a good time,” he recalls. “So I just said to Mick, ‘Look, I don’t know what you guys have in the water over there, but it’s great to know you have this music happening in your country … if there’s any way we can get together and do something, please give me a call.”
Four months later, Jagger invited Mahal and his band to participate in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus with John Lennon, The Who, Eric Clapton and other rock luminaries.
“They sent us four round-trip tickets on the BOAC to London,” Mahal recalls. “It’s great to be a part of that history. Other than Bonnie Raitt on my last tour, in and out of this business they’re the people who treated me most well. They treated us more like royalty when we came over. I’ll never forget them for that. We still have maintained a friendship to this day.”
The band Mahal brings to Tupelo Music Hall on Sept. 18 includes Mike Huff on banjo, guitar and piano, Bill Rich on bass and Chester Smith on drums.