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Taj Mahal Brings a Half Century of Tradition to Blizzfest

Rick Coates - July 8th, 2013  

For years the Blissfest Folk & Roots Music Festival has attracted at least one notable musical legend, and this year is no exception as Taj Mahal brings 50 years of guitar picking experience to the stage.

The 33rd annual Blissfest takes place this weekend, July 12-14 near Cross Village. The three-days of music will feature Taj Mahal, James McMurtry, Sagapool, Solas, Kim Churchill, Funkadesi, Seth Bernard & May Erlewine, The Ragbirds, Kellerville, The Accidentals and many more artists and musicians.

The annual event draws a crowd of about 5,000, showcasing the many musical styles that define American roots and world music. Bluegrass, blues, zydeco, celtic, folk, jazz, Latin, ethnic, worldbeat and dance share several stages on the Blissfest grounds.

TAJ MAHAL

At this year’s Blissfest, Taj Mahal comes to Northern Michigan to promote his new album Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973.

Mahal, while rooted in the blues, has been a musical explorer throughout his career, delving into rock, Caribbean, jazz, reggae and even West Indian musical styles. He also found himself performing a lot with the Rolling Stones during the band’s heyday of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, Jr., he changed his name to Taj Mahal after it came to him while he was having a dream about Gandhi during college. Mahal was majoring in agriculture at the University of Massachusetts and at night he performed in a rhythm and blues band. After graduation he put his agricultural aspirations aside and headed to California to pursue music.

“Yeah, in 1964 I formed Rising Sons with Ry Cooder. We quickly picked up a record deal with Columbia,” said Mahal. “But we never finished the album and the band broke up.”

A CAREER IN THE BLUES

Mahal hit the circuit as a solo performer and eventually met up with the Rolling Stones. That chance meeting changed everything for his career.

“I was performing at the Whiskey a Go Go and the guys from the Rolling Stones and the Animals were in there hanging out,” said Mahal. “So we were hanging out after the show and I was talking to the Stones and saying to them how great it was that they were making a career out of the blues.”

Then Mahal followed with a question that changed his career.

“I asked them if they had any sort of projects over in England I and my bandmates could get involved in that would be great. They said they would get back to me,” said Mahal. “I thought I would never hear from them and a few weeks later they sent eight first class tickets and we flew over to London.”

Mahal spent a couple of years working with The Rolling Stones and was a big part of their “Rock and Roll Circus” project.

“I can’t say enough about the Rolling Stones; they didn’t need to help me. But they reached out their hand and said come on and join us,” said Mahal. “It certainly made a big difference in my career. I really feel like I lucked out.”

The Stones still check in with Mahal. On their 50th anniversary tour during their Chicago stop they brought Mahal on stage with them, performing Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road.”

Mahal sees so much about the music industry that is broken, but focuses his energy on what he does best.

“The corporate music scene has changed everything so much. I don’t fault them for wanting to make money. But when I started playing it was about sharing ideas. I think that is why so much great music was made. Now everyone is so protective of their ideas. For me the music business is on the stage, my relationship with the audience. That is where I put my focus.”

Mahal is also known for his guitar picking and he leads with his thumb and middle finger versus his index finger as most guitarists do.

“I honed my style on the guitar and vocally by studying the greats. People like Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, and a lot of others,” said Mahal. “So my guitar playing and vocals evolved from studying these greats.”

Taj Mahal will headline the 33rd Annual Blissfest Folk & Roots Music Festival this weekend July 12-14 near Cross Village, MI. The three-days of music will also feature James McMurtry, Sagapool, Solas, Kim Churchill, Funkadesi, Seth Bernard & May Erlewine, The Ragbirds, Kellerville, The Accidentals and many more artists and musicians. For more information visit blissfest.org.

 
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