Not every band can pull off a livestream. Often raw musical emotion simply doesn’t translate to the computer screen. The improved sound quality can reveal any number of botched notes, and if the stream goes wonky, forget about it. Luckily, Taj Mahal, the eclectic singer and musician who’s blended rootsy blues music with jazz, pop, reggae and more, had everything going for him during a livestream from the UC Theatre in Berkeley Saturday night.
Backed by the amazing Phantom Blues Band and keyboardist extraordinaire John Clearly, Mahal delivered an impassioned 9o-minute performance that spanned his nearly 50-year career. It was the first of a weekly performance, featuring different guests, that will run for the next three weeks.
As clapping hands and heart emojis raced up the side of the screen, Taj Mahal appeared onstage dressed in tan pants, flowery red aloha shirt, gold sailfish pendant and a gray fedora. The band launched into a soulful cover of Jimmy Smith’s “Strut.” Mahal sang along as he plucked a fiery guitar solo on a large acoustic guitar fitted with an electric pickup and running through an amplifier on stage.
“You should have never said you loved me/ As you laid across my folding bed,” he sang the song’s first lyrics with a throaty growl.
After the first song, Mahal, who was seated for much of the performance, asked the digital audience, “Hey babies, how’s everyone feeling?” He was met by a flurry of emojis and comments in all caps. While the energy couldn’t match the power of a live show, the emotion was palpable, albeit a bit muted. Commenters filled the chat with positive vibes, requests for songs and appreciation for individual musicians. Despite the band not being able to see these messages in real time, the lively digital audience added a much-needed sense of a community coming together to share something they enjoy immensely.
Taj Mahal and the band covered a wide array of musical genres and moods. The slinky jazz of “Strut” was followed by another cover, this one a raunchier blues cover of The Sonics‘ “Diddy Wah Diddy.” Mahal peppered the songs with harmonica licks, soulful vocals and sweet guitar melodies. “EZ Rider,” from his 1968 eponymous debut, featured his gravelly voice and organ stabs from Cleary that gave the song a soulful dad-rock vibe.
Mahal and the band completely reimagined Jim Jackson’s 1928 blues song “I’m Wild About My Loving” with Mahal strumming a ukulele, giving it a uniquely island feel. During the chorus, Mahal made some guttural cat noises into the microphone, prompting one commenter to type, “Omg he must know that imma bout to feed my cats!”
The crucial element in the performance was Mahal’s obvious joy. The 78-year-old managed to embody the mood of each song in a way that traversed the digital divide between audience and artist. Another number, possibly “You Rascal You,” was highlighted by Mahal and Cleary trading fiery solos.
Other standout performances included Les Lovitt’s trumpet solo on a cover of Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues” and the scorching blues leads of guitarist Jonny Lee Schell on “Going up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue” and “Diving Duck Blues.”
Mahal coaxed some absolutely beautiful tones from a resonator guitar on several songs, including “Queen Bee” and “Fishin’ Blues.” His intricate melodies on the metal guitar has an almost bell-like quality and evoked comparisons to Caribbean steel drums.
“Thank you so much for being out there in never never land,” Mahal at the end. “This is a song I used to dance to when I was a teenager, called “Seven Eleven.” The instrumental closed out the set with a wailing solo by saxophonist Joe Sublett, who was decked out in a black leather hat and shades.
Saturday’s performance was the first of a three-date digital residency at The UC Theatre. On March 20, Mahal will host the Roots Rising Showcase, featuring some of his favorite up and coming performers. March 27 will feature an all-star collaboration with Oakland guitar sensation Fantastic Negrito, who should win a third Grammy tomorrow.