When I first heard “Good Morning Miss Brown” on Taj Mahal’s 1968 Natch’l Blues, I knew I’d stumbled on an original performer from a new generation of bluesmen. While I wasn’t always bowled over by his subsequent releases, I appreciated Mahal’s drive to experiment and take risks and not maintain old formulas. This was particularly true with his venturing into unusual rhythms which gave his music a freshness that was “out of the box,” to use Mahal’s own term to describe his career as demonstrated on his newest release, Hidden Treasures.
Hidden Treasures is a new two-disc set containing previously unreleased material to celebrate Mahal’s 70th birthday and launch a new series of Columbia/Legacy Mahal reissues. “Out of the box” is the right way to put it, for both good and ill. Well, it’s perhaps unfair to critique this collection too heavily as it’s essentially material that was rejected for release roughly 40 years ago. It’s not difficult to see why in many cases, but there are indeed hidden treasures along the way.
For example, disc one opens with two of the more engaging tracks. The lively “Chainey Do” is followed by the first of two alternate takes of “Sweet Mama Janisse.” Depending on your taste, the February, 1970 version from Criteria Recording Studios is far cleaner than the rougher version taped on January, 1971 at the Bearsville Recording Studios in Woodstock. Other nuggets include the jaunty Gospel standard, “Jacob’s Ladder,” which is a bit reminiscent of the aforementioned “Good Morning Miss Brown.” Then, there’s some excellent pickin’ and some funny improvised lyrics near the end of “Good Morning Little School Girl.” Speaking of pickin’, multi-instrumentalist Mahal picks up the banjo for “Shady Grove,” which is indeed a nugget worth resurrecting.
But other tracks do sound like demos or works in progress that would interest archivists, not general listeners. I don’t see the point of “Yan Nah Mama Loo.” The odd “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” is a horn-heavy easy listening track with Mahal literally whistling the melody. It’s fun to hear Mahal teaching his band the shuffle pattern before “You Ain’t No Streetwalker, Honey but I Do Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff,” but the proceedings meander as the players strain to maintain the lengthy jam.
Some performances are a little too imitative, as with “Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day” with heavy nods to Otis Redding. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” sounds like Leon Russell in a country mood. The set ends with perhaps the best executed, if shortest, song of the collection, “Butter.” Why the instrumental is called that is elusive, as it’s clearly “People Get Ready” as played on harp.
Now for the real “hidden treasures.” Disc two is a live concert recorded April 18, 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s a virtual history of the blues. The show opens with Mahal singing a cappella (“Runnin’ By the Riverside”), then he’s one man, one guitar (“(John, Ain’t It Hard”), and then he brings on his band for some Delta blues (“”Sweet Mama Janisse” again). Blowing Jimmy Reed-ish harp, we then go to Chicago with “Big Fat,” “Diving Duck Blues,” “Checkin’ Up On My Baby” and the rest of the 10 song program. No flash, no pyrotechnics, just the sho’nuff bare-bones blues.
Standout performances include the jam, ”Oh Susanna,” which demonstrates that Mahal drank at the same rockin’ watering holes as Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat. “Bacon Fat,” a slow moan, returns to one of Mahal’s favorite subjects on the set—food. I’ll admit the Memphis-flavored “Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day” doesn’t have the energy or balls of the studio version. It’s also a bit difficult to hear and understand all the in-between-the-songs banter due to the audio quality, but that’s a minor quibble. The songs, after all, are the point.
In the main, Hidden Treasures will be a must have for Mahal fans interested in the period before his blending of West Indian, African, and Caribbean music came to the fore in his recordings. The live concert alone is worth the price of admission. But those not familiar with Mahal’s work might well want to begin with already existing reissues of his past work—many with interesting bonus tracks—or wait for the forthcoming editions to hear treasures that were never hidden but often overlooked. After all, 1969 to 1973 were very fruitful years for Mahal with a number of well-regarded studio and live albums including The Natch’l Blues, Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home (1969), Happy Just to Be Like I Am (1971), Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff (1972), and Oooh So Good ‘n Blues (1973). Hidden Treasures is for those who’d like to dive a bit deeper into the years when Taj Mahal was honing his craft and transitioning from being a bluesman into a world music pioneer.