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Rajah of Blues 

by Joel Smith, Mike Corrigan and Clint Burgess


Those lucky enough to score tickets to see B.B. King at the Spokane Opera House last week got a vivid peek at blues royalty. King was, if nothing else, regal. His band built up his entrance for 15 minutes. The audience hung on his every word as he stopped songs halfway through to tell stories. And when he finally got up to leave, he took handfuls of picks and gold necklaces from his assistants and tossed them half-heartedly out to the audience, like he was some medieval ruler and the audience a lowly bunch of serfs.


As kingly as King was, he seemed like blues history, playing the same old songs in the same old style with the same old lovely guitar. His voice and instrument were as sharp as ever, but he seemed, well, quaint.


That's a perennial problem with the blues, which lost relevance with mainstream audiences decades ago and has since birthed countless irritating incarnations of the same bland, my-baby-left-me, 12-bar pablum.


It doesn't have to be that way, and Taj Mahal is proof. In a career that's spanned four decades, he has taken the blues deeper and wider than perhaps any artist still living. With a musicologist's interest in the history of the blues, he's knocked down the crusty walls of the 12-bar prison and dug down to the music's very roots. And if you've ever seen him in concert, you can tell that he's had a damn good time doing it.


Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks (you'd change that name, too) in the early 1940s, he adopted the alias Taj Mahal in the early '60s; it came to him in a dream while studying agriculture and animal husbandry at UMass. A musician practically since birth (now proficient in 20-some instruments), he formed Taj Mahal and the Elektras before moving to Los Angeles and forming the Risings Sons with Ry Cooder.


In 1968, he released his first solo album, a collection of rough-edged straight-up blues numbers, all topped with eviscerating, Howlin' Wolf-esque vocals. His next few albums followed in the same vein, but that's when things got really interesting. By the '70s, after establishing himself as an authentic, traditional but modern bluesman, Mahal started to branch out.


In 1971, he took the blues to the Caribbean with Happy Just To Be Like I Am. His next album, a live recording called The Real Thing, boomed with New Orleans-style tuba. The next virtually dripped with reggae. In the early '80s, Mahal packed his guitars, banjos and dobros and moved to Hawaii. He found the blues there, too. Same story in India -- and in Mali, where he recorded with kora player Toumani Diabate in 1999.


In the search for the roots of blues music, Mahal has sampled from Caribbean, Latin, African, Asian and Hawaiian sounds and tuned them up with jazz, funk, soul, zydeco and folk. One minute, you hear strains of Al Green; the next, it's Bob Marley; the next, it's Mississippi John Hurt. But underlying it all, especially recently, is a laid-back sense of fun. When Mahal appears onstage, as he often does, in a floppy straw hat and loud Hawaiian shirt, and dips into a tune like "Queen Bee" or "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes," the music drips with such peace and inexplicable happiness that you find yourself smiling stupidly at complete strangers.


B.B. King's grip on the blues throne is undeniable. But if you want the blues with some life left in it, go see Taj Mahal next Thursday at the Met. You'll understand. And you'll find yourself dancing. And if you don't scream out a request for "Fishin' Blues," I will.





Weighing In -- I've seen the drummer of Weight in a dress, which is pretty weird in itself. But that's not the worst of it. What's really disturbing is the fact that he looked pretty damn hot in that dress. I mean, like: "Say, who's the... whoa! Yeah, man, I knew it was you."


Joe Preston -- formerly of These Arms Are Snakes (and currently the art director at The Inlander) -- makes up one-third of this new local band. He's probably the most fluid and inventive drummer you've ever heard or seen, one of those guys for whom playing seems like second nature. And while most drummers have to compete for attention with those damn guitarists -- who usually hog the front of the stage -- Preston behind his kit (in just T-shirt and jeans) is definitely one of if not the main attractions in Weight.


In fact, no one player dominates here as the band projects a striking visual and sonic symmetry. On guitar is Aaron Powell (also of Belt of Vapor), whose understated, hypnotic technique helps form the group's melodic component together with bassist Dave Griffiths, who also dishes up samples and assorted electronica.


Weight has been together officially for about five months. And while the group is socking every spare dollar they make into a near-future recording project, the best way to experience it right here, right now, is live. And you just happen to have a chance to do that this Friday night at Fat Tuesday's.


The first thing you'll notice about these guys is the fact that they (gasp) have no vocalist. But while the band's compositions are purely instrumental, they're certainly not without voice.


"Right now we're concentrating on the music," says Griffiths. "But we're not limiting ourselves to being an instrumental band. And vocals are something that may evolve eventually."


A Weight performance begins with patterns forming a template: bass and guitar weaving individual, interlacing melodic threads around a sturdy rhythmic foundation. Samples add texture and atmosphere. There is very little eye contact between the players -- but they don't seem to need it.


"We're listening to each other," says Preston.


Powell likens the band's sound to a movie soundtrack, one that evokes images, emotions and even dialog -- with a purely musical language.


"Sometimes vocals can be distracting," Powell says. "When we're playing, it's almost like I'm hearing vocals. We've already had people come up to us after shows offering to be our singer -- as if we were in need of a vocalist. We might eventually, but we wouldn't be playing shows now if we thought we needed one."


Preston says that any vocal additions to Weight -- if they come at all -- would likely be handled in a very non-traditional manner.


"They'd be more like an instrument," he explains, adding, "Why does every band have to have a singer anyway? It's as if every band had to have an oboe player or something." --Mike Corrigan





Locke and the Chris Wilson Five, Belt of Vapor, For Years Blue and Weight at Fat Tuesday's Concert Hall on Friday, March 25, at 7:30 pm. All ages; bar with ID. Tickets: $6. Call 489-3969.





Crueler Than You -- Longtime stability or instant gratification? Some of us agonize over our investment portfolios; some of us just wanna party.


Guess which camp Motley Crue is in.


Basically, after decades of the drunken-sailor act, it's a wonder that this Crue is still sailing. Fortunately for the rocking masses, the Motley party rages on. It will light up the Spokane Arena on Wednesday.


At the height of stardom and the pinnacle of partying, Motley Crue was an unstoppable juggernaut of rock debauchery. They weren't in the music biz in order to burn up the charts; instead, they were involved in an industry-wide burnout contest. The premise of the contest was to see who could destroy themselves the fastest, in the most creative way and in the most grandiose fashion. The Crue was well on their way to winning with a solid effort by Nikki Sixx, who was pronounced clinically dead but came back. Not to be outdone by his band mate, Vince Neil was in a horrific accident that claimed the life of friend. But Neil lived to tell about it.


While all of these antics were enough to keep Motley Crue in the spotlight, their music was equally intense. The band sold millions of records, and songs like "Dr. Feelgood," "Girls, Girls, Girls," and "Shout at the Devil" were anthems to goodtime seekers everywhere. A soundtrack made specifically to accompany everything your parents ever warned you about came neatly packaged in each successive Crue album.


But bands break up and people move on -- at least for a little while. Motley Crue has roared back to the forefront of rock with a vengeance. The band is currently on a world tour that would have rivaled any of their past globe-trotting escapades -- minus the severity of the partying, that is. Make no mistake, the Crue is coming for you.


As a cohesive unit, the members of Motley Crue are on the upswing. They're all alive, for one thing. Vince Neil recently underwent a makeover, and Tommy Lee is -- well, he's Tommy Lee. And as if it weren't enough to have the likes of him in our fair city, we get the privilege of the rest of the legendary Crue as well. Currently the guys are working on an album of all-new material. But until that's available, there's a compilation disc entitled Red, White, and Crue featuring a Motley collection of tunes and pinpointing what it is about a band like Crue that both captivates and frightens us. -- Clint Burgess


Motley Crue at the Spokane Arena on Wednesday, March 30, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $40. Call: 325-SEAT.





Publication date: 03/24/05

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