Blues greats Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo' team up to make some joyful noise

Arts

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A pair of blues greats are collaborating on a new album and a North American tour.

They have known each other for decades, but their joint project has only recently come to fruition.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colorado recently, at the start of a new tour by two musicians who've been doing this a long time, but never together.

And while it's called the blues, 75-year-old Taj Mahal and 65-year-old Keb' Mo' are feeling nothing but joy.

TAJ MAHAL: That's what we like about music. That's why we do music, to share the fun. Life brings a lot of strife. In the digital age, it's even more intense. And a lot of people don't know how to get loose of it.

So, our job as musicians is to help them get loose and have a good time and feel good about themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, Taj Mahal is a living legend in the world of roots and blues music, a singer-songwriter who plays many instruments and draws from many musical influences.

Kevin Moore, Keb' Mo"s given name, spent many years in various R&B, rock, and pop bands, until he went out on his own in the early 1990s and focused on his first love, the blues, gaining renown as a master guitarist, singer, and songwriter.

KEB' MO': It was like a missing piece that made everything relevant. So, what I did was, I took all of those things that I had been doing before, those experiences, took the blues and wrapped it in there.

And what came out was Keb' Mo'.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, together, they are TajMo, the name of their new album, which features several songs they co-wrote, including "Don't Leave Me Here."

On "Take a Giant Step," one of Taj Mahal's earlier songs, they were joined on stage by his daughters. And then there was the more raw acoustic duet of "Diving Duck Blues," a song that Taj Mahal first recorded on his debut album back in 1968.

I have heard you for a long time, blues, folk, world music, I mean, different kinds of elements, different kind of influences.

TAJ MAHAL: My grandparents come from the Caribbean. I grew up listening to Caribbean music, as much as I listened to the Southern gospel. My dad liked bebop. We had bebop and jazz, and jump blues, you know, and spirituals, and classical music, opera, everything, you know?

So, it's like it didn't hurt me because I heard all those things. It didn't take away from — if I heard a real deep blues song, I don't care how much ragtime I listen to, that song's going to get me. It's going to get somebody else too, if they get a chance to hear it.

KEB' MO': It's a beautiful — the beauty in it is just so deep. When I heard the old Muddy Waters stuff, but, wait a minute, now, that's what it is. I could feel the slave ship coming over the ocean.

TAJ MAHAL: Yes.

KEB' MO': I could feel the Jim Crow, the cotton-picking. I could feel the sense of pride welling up in a man out of his own circumstances, that he had to rise up out of a challenging circumstance of Jim Crow and slavery and stuff.

I hear all of that. And that resonates universally.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what you two have managed to do is make a life of this, right, without worrying about the commercialism?

KEB' MO': Yes, commercialism. There's something working in life and in the universe in the bigger picture that has nothing to do with commerce and money.

And, for me, I found that after 20 years going after money, that the faster I ran after money, the faster the money ran.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. That sounds like a blues song.

TAJ MAHAL: Yes, yes, the faster I run after the money …

(CROSSTALK)

KEB' MO': And so I finally just got out of breath and stopped — stopped running.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, neither of them has stopped playing. Together, the sound they're creating is both upbeat and uplifting.

TAJ MAHAL: Did we know what it was going to sound like at this point? No. But we knew that it was going to be something good. Yes, we knew it was going to be something good. I mean, it could have gone the other way too. I could have said, Moore, get out of here.

(LAUGHTER)

KEB' MO': That's what I thought might happen.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: As always, there's the question of how long the blues will live on and who will take up the mantle. Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo' are supremely confident the music will take care of itself.

KEB' MO': Taking on the blues is a big responsibility. So I understand why people would be concerned. But the music and riches is about happiness. The blues will be fine.

TAJ MAHAL: Disciples? We have got plenty of them.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo', TajMo, are touring the country throughout the summer and into the fall.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Boulder, Colorado.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you — yes, you — can watch Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo' perform "Diving Duck Blues" on our Web site at pbs.org/newshour.

Recently in Arts