Like the roux in a good stew, the blues is a foundational component of American music, and the Virginia Theatre got a taste of the real thing on Thursday night when reigning Grammy blues champs TajMo came to town. From delta blues pickin’ on pastoral porches to electric blues on sweaty stages, practitioners have kept the flame alive for over a century, passing the torch on from generation to generation while always skirting the boundaries of the tradition.
While TajMo is the collaboration of two stars who jumped on the blues scene in different eras, their timelines converged at a Gregg Allman tribute show in 2015, and over the next two years of writing and recording, their talents combined to make a beautiful upbeat country blues as the newly minted band TajMo, and a self titled album to go with it. In the late 60s when blues players were gravitating with the psychedelic tide, Taj Mahal bucked the trend and introduced his lively style of country blues with his landmark debut self titled album. By the 1990s a wide variety of players continued to develop the electric blues and it seemed that blues had wandered far from its singer songwriter delta roots, until Keb Mo set out on his solo career with a refreshing style that harkened back to the sound of the delta blues, and a sweet clarity in his singing and playing was a welcome refresh of the genre.
Collaborative albums among seasoned professionals happen all the time and they are each special for their own reasons, but the fruits of this collaboration between Taj Mahal and Keb Mo really took the blues world by surprise, earning the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2017, and the boosted interest fueled the duo to take their show on the road again this summer for another tour that brought them to Champaign last night.
The Virginia Theatre was packed with the sold-out crowd by time the opener, a 22-year old country bluesman from Georgia with button down tucked into his wranglers named Jontavious Willis (pictured above), hit the stage promptly at 8 p.m. Solitary among a stage full of gear for the headlining band, Willis played his small-scale acoustic parlor guitar sitting in a chair, skillfully working the crowd with showman’s antics as much as his playing and singing. From the first verse of the first song (“She might be your woman, but she comes to see me sometimes / She comes to see me so much I’m beginning to think she’s mine”) the crowd was responding so much to each line that Willis had to tell them to save some energy for the punchline, “because it gets only gets better”.
After hotdogging with great old timey tricks, like playing the guitar with his elbow while appearing to be casually leaning on it, he took the crowd down for a sad song. “The blues is about life, and life isn’t always happy,” he said, before playing a tune about contemplating suicide because of a sadness that won’t go away. As a 22-year old, Willis showed that the power of this old art form is not lost on all people in the so-called Millennial generation, even if there were only a handful of his cohorts in attendance.
After a short set break, TajMo hit the stage with the full 9-piece band, arranged with Taj seated in the middle with Keb standing next to him, drums flanking the stage to the left, keys to the right, and the horns, back up singers, and bass player lining the back of the stage, which featured large vintage style incandescent stage lights under the band’s logo. Continuing from the opener’s set, the crowd engagement was high, with Taj and Keb acknowledging the hooting and hollering in stride as they played and sang. Their singing voices pair exceptionally well because they have so much in common while still each having its own character, Taj’s voice a little more gravelly like John Lee Hooker’s and Keb’s a little breathier like Buddy Guy’s.
The country blues style they play is bouncy and fun, and all of the players know just how to pick their spots for subtle improvisational flourishes. After a handful of songs, the band left the stage for Taj and Keb to play an acoustic set of tunes, including “Diving Duck Blues”, a tune from Taj Mahal’s 1968 landmark debut album, re-arranged for acoustic for the TajMo which they performed at the 2017 Grammy Awards. After a costume change out of his suit and into a black t-shirt, the drummer joined the pair to play Keb Mo’s hit “Am I Wrong?” as a transition before the rest of the band came out to play the second half of the set.
Throughout the set Taj and Keb continuously swapped out guitars including everything from parlor guitars, resonators, banjo-guitar hybrid, mandolin, hollow body, and solid body electric guitars. The setlist included most of the songs off the group’s lone album, as well as notable tunes from each of their solo careers. Near the end of the show, Keb took the time to introduce the band and each individual touring member of the crew by name, teasing them as he called them out. It was evident that they are a tight knit group and that the joyful and playful spirit of their music follows them on the road as they crisscross the country. Sitting in his captain’s chair, Taj lead the group and most of the stage banter throughout the evening, stoking the crowd. “I know you can get crazy, I remember you from the 60s. You can fool your kids but you can’t fool me,” he teased, and it worked.
Photos by Kwamé Nyerere Thomas