“We’re all here,” bluesman Taj Mahal recently told the audience at Wolf Trap, “because we love music.”
And what a night of music it was, featuring not just Taj, but revered East LA rockers Los Lobos and southern blues band North Mississippi Allstars in an opening slot at Wolf Trap on June 1.
There’s much to be said about all three acts, about their performance and about their place in the history of American music. Taj Mahal has been active since the ’60s, and Los Lobos are celebrating 50 years together as a band. The North Mississippi Allstars, who’ve been together since the late ’90s, have musical roots through their father, noted musician and producer Jim Dickinson, that go back to the ’60s, too.
Taj, Los Lobos, and the Allstars have history with each other in particular. Los Lobos played on a couple of tracks on Taj’s album Maestro. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Luther Dickinson of the Allstars made an album, 3 Skulls and The Truth, with Mato Nanji. All three share a foundation in the blues, often in combination with other genres.
This show had an interesting arc. The Allstars opening set was the loudest part of the evening, and that served to get the crowd warmed up for the rest of the night. In an opening set, when you have just 30 minutes, you can’t vary the emotional timbre of the set a lot. You have to grab the audience’s attention and get them “warmed up.” The Allstars did that with a very well-received set.
Los Lobos rocked out too, especially on the all-electric part of their set, but they mixed hard-changing bangers with softer, more contemplative songs played mostly acoustic. Taj’s set, which capped on the evening, felt surprisingly intimate given the size of the venue. It’s a credit to Taj’s skill as a performer and raconteur that he’s able to make this deep, almost personal connection with what must, from his perspective on stage, be a sea of people.
While this show had the inverse of the structure of most shows, I found it really worked. I often leave shows feeling wired, but Thursday night was different. I left feeling calm and at peace after Taj finished his set by sending out a positive message: “Everybody Is Somebody.” That may seem like such a simple message it doesn’t need to be said, but it helps to hear it out loud sometimes.
Watch Taj Mahal perform “Everybody Is Somebody” live for SFJAZZ on YouTube:
Born in Harlem and raised in Massachusetts, Taj, now 81, has explored the boundaries of the blues in combination with music from all over the world: the Caribbean, Africa, and even Hawaii. Introducing an instrumental with a strong tropical island flavor, he talked about how so many of us dreamed of going “somewhere” during the Covid lockdown. “Guess where we’re thinking of in this,” he said. He also had a great line with, “All 7 million of us on the globe can now say hindsight is 2020.
A surprising number of Taj’s song’s were instrumental. He began his set with one that originated during his time in Zanzibar, which he dedicated to his daughter. He also played the traditional instrumental. “Roscoe’s Mule.” Picking up the banjo for that one, he said, “This instrument loves the hill music.” Taj is quite the multi-instrumentalist: he played acoustic and resonator guitars and banjo, and maybe some other stuff, too.
After his opening instrumental, Taj moved on to an audience favorite with “Honey Bee.” “You know we’re gonna play the blues,” he said before “Good Morning Miss Brown.” “That song,” he said, “woke me up at night.” The set included a cover of a very old song, “Wild About My Lovin’.” Taj explained that, in 2026, it’ll be 100 years since it was first recorded, the year after the the electronic microphone — “which changed everything” — was invented. He also covered “See See Rider Blues” and did his own version of “stagger Lee.”
Taj is a funny, charming guy, and that comes through in both his songs and his witty repartee. You have to have a sense of humor to write a song called “Mississippi Big Butt Blues.” I am reminded of a story about him in Jay Farrar’s (of Son Volt) book, about when they were on the HORDE tour together in the ’90s. At the time, Taj had gotten really into Caribbean culture and cuisine, and was regularly barbecuing. Taj would knock on the door of Son Volt’s trailer. “You boys want fish? You boys want chicken?” For the record, if Taj Mahal knocked on me door and offered to feed me barbecue, my mind would explode. As Jay says in his book, “Touring with Taj Mahal is the best.”
Taj’s set also included “Cakewalk Into Town,” and closed with the aforementioned “Everybody Is Somebody.” They dispensed with an encore, and the timing was perfect: Taj and his quartet left enough time after the set for people who’ve taken the shuttle from the metro to get to the buses. A lot of people in this area use public transit to get to shows, and it’s always appreciated when the artists make that easy on us.
Los Lobos, who are one of my favorite bands, had the middle slot. Last summer, they performed at Wolf Trap on the Wheels of Soul Tour headlined by Tedeschi Trucks Band. Unfortunately, David Hidalgo had to miss the show due to illness. Their set was still fantastic — these guys are total pros who can deal with any situation — but it was great to the see the band at full strength. They began with a terrific song, “One Time, One Night,” from their album By The Light of the Moon. This song encapsulates what this band does best — songs that are grounded in their experiences in the home in East Los Angeles, while reaching out to a wider audience by addressing themes, ideas and issues that touch on universal concerns. “One Time, One Night,” uses characters familiar from their lives to talk about mortality and tragedy.
Watch the official music video for “One Time, One Night” by Los Lobos on YouTube:
The first half of their set, as I’ve mentioned was largely acoustic. Their set always includes several Latin numbers — they started at as acoustic Latin folk band — and Thursday was no exception: they played “Maricela,” the title cut of La Pistola y La Corazon, “a little Tex-Mex” tune, and a few other Spanish language songs. In the all-electric portion of their set, they did “Chuco’s Cumbia.”
Kiko, which may be the band’s masterpiece, got a fair amount of attention with “Short Side of Nothing” and the beautiful slice-of-life of “Saint Behind the Glass.” The band stayed with a lot of their earlier and mid-career material, including two songs that dealt with the plight of immigrants in America, “A Matter of Time” and “Will The Wolf Survive.” They closed their set with “Don’t Worry Baby” followed a cover of Richie Valens’s “La Bamba,” which they took to No. 1 in 1987.
After the North Mississippi Allstars’ opening set, someone near me remarked that it seemed short. It was the standard length for opening sets, but the energy and pace made it fly by. Their songs included “Station Blues,” “Goin’ Down South,” “Ship,” “Shake ‘Em Down,” “Call That Gone,” and “Up and Rolling.”
Watch the official music vieo for “Up and Rolling” by the North Mississippi Allstars on YouTube:
As I’ve mentioned, the Allstars’ principals members, brothers Luther (guitar) and Cody (drums) are the scions of a musical legacy. Their father, Jim, produced a ton of records, including Big Star’s seminal Third, and he played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” I highly recommend his memoir, I’m Just Dead, Not Gone. The Allstars’ set and the Dickinson brothers playing Thursday was a credit to their heritage and their love of hill country blues.
This was my first visit show at Wolf Trap this summer, and I could’ve have asked for a better start to the season. These artists are really American musical institutions, and it’s always great to see them do their thing. It’s also worth saying, these are artists who’ve given back so much. Later this month, several members of Los Lobos are headed down to Texas for a voting rights benefit. A few years ago, Luther Dickinson did an album with that highlighted a number of female Americana artists, Sisters of the Strawberry Moon. Taj Mahal has become a musical ambassador, uniting cultures, and he’s supported younger artists, like Son Volt. All great musicians and exemplary people.
Here are some photos of The NorthMississippi Allstars performing at Wolf Trap on June 1, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.
Here are some photos of Los Lobos performing at Wolf Trap on June 1, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.
Here are some photos of Taj Mahal performing at Wolf Trap on June 1, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.