The blues and beyond: Taj Mahal Quartet will perform at Union County Performing Arts Center

taj mahal interview

TAJ MAHAL

Taj Mahal, who made his Newport Folk Festival debut all the way back in 1968, will return to the Rhode Island event this year, performing on July 22. But while he’s on the East Coast, the Berkeley, Calif.-based blues and roots singer-songwriter — who was born in New York and grew up in Springfield, Mass. — will have a handful of other dates, including July 20 at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway.

“When people come to the concerts, we’re looking for them to have fun, to have a good time,” he says. “And certainly, find room to dance, if you can dance.

“For me, the whole thing is really to have people have fun listening to the music. It’s really been exciting for me to have an audience to follow me (over the years). You know, I’m just past my 80th birthday and I realized that if I wanted to work as much as I used to work, I could still do it.”

He’ll perform in Rahway with his quartet, also featuring guitarist Bobby Ingano, bassist Bill Rich, and drummer Kester Smith. Ingano, a Hawaii native who joined in 2019, is the newest member of the group, and his presence reflects Taj’s strong interest in Hawaiian music.

One of the most striking things about Taj’s career is his ability to incorporate elements of music from the Caribbean, Africa and other locations around the world to American blues and folk.

“I have a pretty wide net that I draw music in from,” he said, adding that Ingano “plays steel guitar and the Stratocaster guitar. He’s very versatile.

JAY LUSTIG

Taj Mahal, performing at the Crawfish Festival in August in 2018.

“Even when I started out, early on, I always had a kind of acoustic/electric sound, to create the kind of sound that you recognize it when you hear it, as kind of a signature sound. So I’m able to really continue that same kind of vocabulary, and he expands it into Pacific Island music and lots of different stuff.”

He says he didn’t mind not being able to do his usual touring during the pandemic.

“I was quite happy to just go home and be chill for a while and relax. I put 60 years into playing music around the globe, paying the bills and performing. It wasn’t as though I was thrust into the Jimi Hendrix spot or the Rolling Stones spot (of rock stardom) — even though all those people and I were quite good friends and played a lot of shows together. I was a working, journeyman musician. I put the time in.

“A lot of guys didn’t want to do it that way. But this is what I signed up for. I signed up to play music.”

Taj’s latest album, Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (released on the Nonesuch label in April), reunites him with Ry Cooder, his partner in the ’60s band, The Rising Sons. Taj and Cooder recorded songs by the blues duo — who influenced them during the Rising Sons period — in an earthy, acoustic manner, with backing only by Cooder’s son, Joachim on drums and bass.

Taj described Terry and McGhee — who died in 1986 and 1996, respectively — as “one of the greatest blues duos ever” and “a couple of rascals that played music.” He said Cooder came up with the idea to do an album together as a tribute.

The cover of “Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee,” by Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.

“I said, ‘Let’s do something,’ and then he came up with that idea, for the focus of it,” said Taj. “It’s something that’s common ground for both of us.”

Since the ’60s, said Taj, he and Cooder have bumped into each other occasionally. Their friendship wasn’t fully rekindled, though, until they found themselves performing together in 2014 at the Americana Music Honors & Awards Show in Nashville. Taj was receiving a lifetime achievement award, and Cooder was in the house band

“Our career paths took us in different directions (after The Rising Sons broke up),” Taj said. “He spent a lot of time with production and in the studios, and I was travelling the world and on the road. He came out sometimes but certainly not as much as I did. I was really travelling a lot.”

Cooder “was the reason I came to California in the first place (in the ’60s),” Taj said, adding that in the Get on Board sessions, “it was great to see both of our maturity (as musicians), but at the same time, the foundation was there, as to what excited us about the music that we liked to play in the first place. I was an admirer of his playing since before I knew him.”

They’ve performed some shows together to promote Get on Board. As far as future shows, Taj says, he would be up for it “whenever he wants to go out. It’s really totally up to him.”

The Taj Mahal Quartet performs at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, July 20 at 8 p.m.; visit ucpac.org.

For more about him, visit tajblues.com.

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