Taj Mahal's Stripped-Down 'Labor of Love': Exclusive Stream

Jay Blakesberg
Taj Mahal

Children whose parents had that particular, Sunday-morning-in-spring taste in music may remember hearing Taj Mahal in their youth and thinking -- correctly -- that it didn't quite fit next to the Marley or Bonnie or Willie or Dylan they (most likely) played, or within the older blues forms which form the spine of Mahal's body of work. It was scholarly and dense, loose because he was so clearly focused on the music.

Taj Mahal's newest record, Labor of Love (releasing tomorrow, Dec. 16 and available here on vinyl), is his first in four years. The record was originally recorded in a hotel room in 1998. The story of the recording is in itself worth hearing: In the late-'90s, Tim Duffy, founder of the non-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation, was overseeing a 42-city tour of artists (sponsored, somehow poetically, by Winston cigarettes) -- generally American roots acts who may have missed their career's second wind -- in support of them and his newly formed organization.

At a stop in Houston, the daughter of a woman, immortalized by blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins, was around his hotel room. Inspired by the historical proximity, Taj began picking out standards, "Stag-O-Lee," "Shortnin' Bread," "Fishing Blues." The recording equipment Duffy had towed along was finally put to use.

The session was never released because of its proximity to several projects Mahal had released around the time of its recording. And so it sat, for nearly twenty years, until finally seeing light this week.

The polyrhythmic plucking of "Zanzibar," in two-and-a-half minutes, seems to encapsulate the work Mahal has been pushing his entire career. The bright melodies of African guitar fold into a sharp refrain, and on either side a staccato bluegrass verse. It may be the album's voiceless standout, but the standards here are as bedrock to American popular music as any recorded in the days before the atom bomb.

As Mahal said when asked of the new record: "Put your ears to it, listen, enjoy... and most of all, have plenty of fun!"


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