Taj Mahal

You wouldn’t expect an 80th birthday celebration to start at 10 p.m. on a weeknight. But Taj Mahal, a revered picker and singer of blues, soul, folk and more — who turned 80 a few months back on May 18 — is not most octogenarians. As the Americana Music Association Honors and Awards ceremony was wrapping up over at the Ryman on Wednesday night, one of the organization’s previous Lifetime Achievement Award winners took the stage over at The Basement East, flanked by his longtime partners Billy Rich and Kester Smith. Bluegrass duo Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley joined in the band, but Mahal doesn’t fix what isn’t broken: The frontman’s rhythm section has been consistent since 1972, when he completed his trio with Rich on bass and Smith on drums.

Throughout the two-hour AmericanaFest performance, Mahal explored his curvy path of internationally flavored blues with help from a wide variety of guests. Together, they highlighted all the ingredients that go into his gumbo of a sound, showing off techniques borrowed from Caribbean calypso musicians and guitarists from island nations around the Pacific. Guatemala-born singer Gaby Moreno’s guest appearance brought out the Central American flavors. Among the show’s highlights was a particularly compelling duet with Nashville’s own Kyshona on “Queen Bee,” a longtime repertoire staple and fan favorite. The gently grooving love song inspired the couple next to me to start slow-dancing.


Kyshona with Taj Mahal

The set hit terminal velocity just before midnight, when another special guest came out for two songs. The appearance of 70-year-old Nashville-residing blues luminary Keb’ Mo’ — who collaborated with Taj Mahal on 2017’s TajMo, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album — was a little like finding the extra fries in the bottom of the bag. Experience has taught you to expect them to be there, but it’s a thrill when it happens nonetheless.

Then, as is usual for this sort of celebration, all of the evening’s guests — including Rissi Palmer, Will Hoge, Kaia Kater and Jim Lauderdale — returned to the stage for an ensemble sing-along, this time of “Everybody Is Somebody” from Mahal’s 1986 album Taj. Perhaps the most emphatic expression of the love of music in the room was the impromptu Soul Train dance procession that broke out as the guests shook their way off the stage to Chuck Brown’s funk masterpiece “Bustin’ Loose.”

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