The veteran bluesmen reveal why they broke the genre’s rules on their first studio collaboration, TajMo, while sharing resonator guitars, banjos, and electric workhorses along the way.
Though born a decade apart, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ share a strikingly similar musical history. Both learned multiple instruments before the guitar: piano, clarinet, trombone, and harmonica for Mahal; French horn, steel drums, and upright bass for Mo’. Both began their recording careers in California: Mahal with Ry Cooder in the Rising Sons, and Mo’ with Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach. Each has worked as an actor. Mahal appeared in the movie Sounder and wrote its score. He also acted in Songcatcher and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Mo’ has appeared onstage in the Zora Neale Hurston musical Spunk, along with a number of large- and small-screen roles. Both are multiple Grammy winners and, although narrowly categorized as blues artists, are comfortable pushing the boundaries of the blues into new territories.
The proof is in their discographies. By his second album, 1968’s The Natch’l Blues, Mahal was adding Stax soul tunes to his repertoire. By the third, 1969’s Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home, he was including a country classic, Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” and “Take a Giant Step,” a tune Carole King and Gerry Goffin had written for the Monkees. Mahal’s later recordings would incorporate Hawaiian, Caribbean, and African elements, not to mention a four-piece horn section on his first live album, 1971’s The Real Thing.
On his self-titled, largely acoustic 1994 debut as Keb’ Mo’, the former Kevin Moore was happy interspersing the pop sound of his tunes “Victims of Comfort” and “Anybody Seen My Girl” with the Taj-like blues lope of “Tell Everybody I Know” and the modern soul of “Don’t Try to Explain.” By 2001, his eclecticism was in full swing. On that year’s Big Wide Grin, Mo’ covered the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” Slim Gaillard’s “Flat Foot Floogie,” and, in a nod to another genre-jumping artist, Ray Charles’ rewrite of “America the Beautiful.”
So it comes as no surprise that the album these two cross-pollinators recently joined to make, TajMo, draws from a wide range of musical inspirations. It kicks off with the soulful strut of “Don’t Leave Me Here,” quickly downshifting to the sparser resonator- and acoustic-guitar-driven funk of “She Knows How to Rock Me.” And “All Around the World” gets a full-on pop production with a dash of roots, courtesy of Canadian blues legend Colin Linden on mandolin.
Joe Walsh (yes, that Joe Walsh) makes his first appearance on “Om Sweet Om,” which also features vocalist Lizz Wright and harmonica great Lee Oskar. But it is on “Shake Me in Your Arms” that Walsh’s unmistakable Tele attack trades fills with Mo’s Strat funk, and the “Rocky Mountain Way” man turns in a torrid solo. On the opposite pole, “Diving Duck Blues” conjures images of two veteran bluesmen sitting on a back porch—the intertwining of Mahal on acoustic and Mo’ on resonator slide creating enough texture and rhythm to make a band superfluous.
And Mahal and Mo’ continue to find material in places the typical blues musician might fail to look, covering the Who’s “Squeezebox” and John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.” For these two musicians, such a musical smorgasbord is as natural as breathing. That quality, along with their longtime admiration for each other and their deep roots, helps give this joint project an air of inevitability.
How did you each get started on guitar?
Taj Mahal: My stepdad had a guitar, which I discovered, but the guy that actually got me started on the instrument was Lynwood Perry from Louisburg, North Carolina, outside of Durham. He knew how to play and I followed him all over the place.
Keb’ Mo’: My Uncle Herman taught me how to play guitar. He lived up in Northern California. I would listen to guys like Phil Upchurch and the Beatles. I would listen to all the guitar parts all the way through any record. I didn’t listen too much to particular guitarists because then you have the danger of sounding like that person. I was trying to gather information about how to make music—how to analyze the chords, scales, and modes, and how I could use those tools to make music, rather than just learn licks.
The 11-song album includes old-school acoustic music, electric blues, pop and rock covers, and two cameos from Joe Walsh, playing in classic form.
Who were your early guitar influences?
Mahal: I think Jimmy Reed was big in there and, of course, people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker. I liked a lot of players, but I didn’t really try to play their music.
Mo’: I really love how David T. Walker plays. He played on my record called Reflection. If I was in my 20s, the influence list would probably be two or three names, but as time goes on, the list gets longer and longer.
Was Taj an influence on you growing up?
Mo’: I got around to Taj later on.
Keb, on “Ain’t Nobody Talking,” your solo has a jazz feel. Did you ever study jazz?
Mo’: There is a little bit of jazz, but it’s pretty inside—no Locrian modes. When I play solos, I do follow the changes. Some guys might play pentatonic scales over everything, but I tend to change with the chords.
How did you two originally meet?
Mo’: A mutual connection brought me to the studio where Taj was recording in 1993.
Mahal: I was in Los Angeles recording. It was a chance to meet this young man up close. He was somebody I admired and thought a lot of.
What made you eventually decide to do a record together?
Mahal: Over the years, we got to know each other at shows. Every now and then, I would say, “Hey man, we need to start puttin’ something together.”
Mo’: We blocked it out way ahead and started recording in Nashville around 2014. We would record in between our touring schedules.
Mahal: This was not connected to a record company loaning us the money and giving us a producer. We put up our own money to create the record so we would have a 100-percent say in what the product became.
Mo’: We got three tracks laid down at that first session. Then, Taj went out on the road. We would talk and send each other songs. If we both liked a song, I would record the basic guitar, bass, and drum tracks, and send it to him. Once I had enough of those going, we put Taj’s vocals and guitar parts on the whole record. Then, I went back home, overdubbed some more stuff, and continued to confer with Taj. He would give me his input, and that was the process. A guy named Ross Hogarth mixed it in Los Angeles. As I got some mixes closer to where they were shaping up, we sent them back and forth. There were a lot of phone conversations, Dropboxes, MP3s, and plane tickets. [Both laugh.]
Over more than 50 years as a performer, Taj Mahal—who was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in 1942—has developed a repertoire that draws on a broad swath of African and Caribbean sounds, as well as American roots music.
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
How did you decide who would play what instrument?
Mo’: We tried to let the song and the moment tell us, and then we would pull out something and start playing it. When it works, you know it. You keep finessing it and whatever survives in the end is what you’ve got. If something wasn’t working, the song would just spit it out organically.
There is a lot of resonator on the record. What resonators do you play?
Mo’: I used two resonators: a National Reso Rocket and a small-body Republic travel resonator that has a real nice, tight sound. For things that were more open and out in the room, like “Divin’ Duck,” I used the big resonator. For things that were nastier and sitting in the track, like “That’s Who I Am,” I used the smaller Republic.
What was the cutaway resonator you were using at the 2013 Eric Clapton Crossroads concert where you and Taj played together?
Mo’: That’s the Republic.
Mahal: The tricone I’m playing at that show is a Recording King.
Do you have a special mic you like for resonators?
Mo’: Usually the ones that are sittin’ around. [Laughter.] I might use an SM57 or a DPA. Sometimes a cheap condenser, like an MXL, works. Sometimes the expensive ones hear too much, so I use whatever trick I need to make it sound right. You need a strong mic pre, so I use an Avalon, an API, a Neve, or something like that.
Resonators can be tricky to amplify live. What do you use to amplify yours?
Mo’: My Republic has a Highlander pickup, and I go directly to the board.
What about you Taj?
Mahal: Mine is just a little ol’ three-dollar weird mic pickup installed by the guys at Subway Guitars in Berkeley, California. I just put little cheap mics in there and plug them into a Boss volume pedal, a Boss stereo chorus, and then plug that into Fender Bassman amps.
What acoustic guitars did you use on the record?
Mo’: My main acoustic is my Gibson Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster model. I also used a handmade guitar by Will Hirsch in Northern California, and a nylon-string made by Bedell Guitars.
What are you using Taj?
Mahal: Mostly Kevin’s guitars. I brought a bunch of stuff on my own, but when something sounds real good, I’m going there.
Mo’: You used your banjo.
Mahal: That was a Bart Reiter copy of a [vintage] 5-string Fairbanks Whyte Laydie banjo.
Mo’: I’ve got Gibson Mastertone and Deering banjos.
Which electric guitars do you use, Keb’?
Mo’: My electric guitars are an 11-year-old Suhr Strat, a custom Paul Reed Smith, and a 3-pickup Epiphone Riviera. I switched out the Riviera’s P-90s for P-100s, because the P-90s are noisy. I also have a little, single-cutaway Gretsch Electromatic Center-Block model, with two pickups—a single-coil in the front and a little humbucker-type thing in the back. It works really well. The guitars are all based on need. I have a lot, but for a gig I will settle on one.
What amps do you use for your electrics, Keb’?
Mo’: I use a Mesa/Boogie Mark Five: 35, with two different open-back cabinets. One is a 1x12 and the other is a custom 2x10. I haven’t really decided yet which one I like best.
What pedals do you use with electric guitar?
Mo’: For distortion, I use the Empire from Big Joe Stomp Box Company. I also use an MXR 6-band EQ.
How do you usually set the EQ?
Mo’: It depends on the room. I use it to put out low-mids to focus the sound. I also have an Empress ParaEq. It’s a 4-band parametric EQ. I change pedals all the time, but I try to make sure everything is true bypass. I just switched out my reverb pedal and my delay pedal. Sometimes my tech just brings me something and I put it on the pedalboard.
How did Joe Walsh get involved in this project?
Mo’: He was in the neighborhood and he came by.
Was this in LA or Nashville?
Mo’: I thought he would just show up and say hello, because you never want to assume anything, but he came with a guitar and an amp and said, “Let’s go.” [Laughter.] He was ready. I think Lizz Wright was there that day, too.
Do you remember what guitar and amp Joe was playing on the record?
Mo’: A Tele.
Mahal: That’s what it looked like to me. It was some kind of cool, customized Telecaster.
Mo’: Yeah, hard to tell. We were listening to what he was playing rather than watching what he was using.
Do you remember what amp he brought in, or did he use yours?
Mo’: A little bitty amp. I don’t know; I should have taken more pictures.
You’re both typically placed in the blues category, but, of course, your music draws from so many other influences. How do each of you feel about stretching the blues as a genre and keeping it vital going into the future?
Mo’: First of all, I would like to crush the idea that the blues is an endangered species, because it’s not. People always like to put you in a box as a sales tactic. It’s part of the old paradigm of telling people where to find your record at the record store. Now there aren’t many record stores, so you can just be an artist. People are very quick to call this a new blues record, but Eric Clapton said that if you call something a blues record, half the people are out. It’s like everybody runs for the hills.
What are your feelings, Taj?
Mahal: My feelings have always been the same. No matter how much blues was on the first records I put out, there was always room for more stuff happening. As soon as I got the opportunity to express those parts of my cultural background, I did it. Half my ancestors are from the South, the Piedmont area, and the other half from the Caribbean. My guitar style was learned directly from a player who knew Piedmont blues, but also from people like Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, and those kinds of players. All those guys listened to other music than the blues. That used to be what musicians did—they added different rhythms, such as rhumba, swing, and cha-cha. But it wasn’t marketed that way. All those brick-and-mortar places are gone now. All those categories are gone. Now you put out one song and everybody thinks that’s what you do, until you put out the next one.
Mo’: There is a stigma to the blues that is very hard to get around. That’s probably not going to change any time soon. It is time to shake off categories like jazz, blues, and classical. Still, I’m just grateful to have a career. If it’s in the blues category, I am very proud of that.
Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ were still a year away from the first sessions for TajMo when they united at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2013 to play a double-resonator rendition of “Diving Duck Blues” that became a template for their recorded version.