A near-capacity crowd at the Tralf on Friday night warmly welcomed the world blues of the Taj Mahal Trio for a set that spanned the globe for sounds abounding in tradition. True to his signature style of staying light on lowdown laments and long on sparse, sprightly expression, Taj took the room through stripped-down sojourns at many of the stages of his near 50-year career.
Supported by the stay-at-home duo of five-string bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith, Mahal started with a simple instrumental strut that displayed his distinct finger-picking, heavy on the thumb and more prominently plucking with his middle finger than the common practice of leading with the index, as his barely electric tone pierced through the space left by their light arrangement. Throughout the night, Mahal soloed on his own terms, sometimes with a flatpick, stirring up a slew of notes in one flash while at other spots simply strumming, all the while not a whiff of overplaying. His only dose of showmanship came from the playful facial expressions that accompanied a fair share of flashes.
Mahal ranged his rich voice from a caroler's croon to a guttural growl a la Howlin' Wolf, delivering the slow-burn suggestive tone of "Annie Mae" with his go-to, get-the-crowd-going line, "I know this is a room full of grandmas -- this is the first generation of grandmas that wore tight jeans and miniskirts!" He sat down but still danced in his seat and on the keyboards for the light shuffle of "Di La Do," at points playing with his right hand and shaking his left arm and legs, flapping his lips on the mic and hitting notes with his elbows like a kid whose parents stepped out of the room.
Before hitting the high point of the set in terms of hits, Mahal cracked a joke about one-time Buffalonian Bull Moose Jackson and the Buffalo Bearcats, then kicked into his classic "Fishin' Blues," delivering the epitome of finger-pickin' porch blues with an acoustic guitar and practically scatted lyrics to the point of incomprehension, following with his famous take on the traditional "Corrina, Corrina" that revealed so much of the magic in his music -- his reggaefied beat that redefined the song; his insistence on singing it a new way as much as the crowd wanted to sing along; and his summoning of Bob Dylan's version that included words taken from Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" -- "I got a bird that whistles/I got a bird that sings."
The slanky "Mississippi Big Butt Blues" gave way to "one o' them sashay tunes" in Johnson's "Good Morning, Miss Brown," followed by the breezy "Queen Bee" that revealed his feel for the islands after moving to Hawaii in the '80s. "Zanzibar" brought his world blues view together, as he drew Eastern African rhythms and rhymes into an ethereal acoustic groove.
In closing with the electric call-and-response of "The Blues is Alright" and a moving encore of "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes," a duet with his daughter, Deva Mahal, whose quartet Fredericks Brown opened the show with its own sparse soul, he showed his ability to bring it all back home, a stirring finish that prompted a standing ovation.
Taj Mahal Trio
Friday evening in the Tralf Music Hall, 622 Main St.