The holiday season is here, which means traditions like Frangos, The Nutcracker at McCaw and the carousel at Westlake. But perhaps no Seattle holiday tradition is more welcome than Taj Mahal’s annual Thanksgiving stand at Jazz Alley, which started Friday with a wonderful show.
This is the 18th Thanksgiving Mahal has played Jazz Alley. He may be 71, but on Friday showed his chops are intact. He opened with “Fishin’ Blues” on his trusty National steel guitar, and it was played to perfection.
Over the course of generous 90-minute set, Mahal switched guitars and musical genres, often. Mostly he plays what he calls “sweet country blues,” but he mixes genres, and includes Caribbean-inspired rhythms.
Ably backed by Bill Rich on bass, and Kester Smith on drums, Mahal also can sidetrack to a history lesson of the ukulele. Though his repertoire rarely switches from two-dozen classics, this band finds new ways to make old standards feel fresh.
When Mahal switched to electric guitar, he ripped through “TV Mama.” It was like watching a guitar clinic, with the same dirty, funky sound you’d hear from The Black Keys, except this was nearer to the source.
But Mahal specializes in those sweet country blues, and so it was the closer, “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes,” that was the night’s most resonant moment. He dedicated it to his daughter, who lives near Seattle, and who is the reason this Thanksgiving tradition started.
He said she wasn’t in the audience Friday, but would be later in the run. And though she may be the motivation for his trips here, it was clear Friday that Mahal has found a home at Jazz Alley, and that Seattle has embraced him as part of our cultural holiday fabric.
When he played Jazz Alley that first Thanksgiving two decades ago, it was one of the only places he did a multiple night stand, as blues players usually move from town to town. His booking at the club has gotten longer, and this year he’s doing 13 shows over eight nights. If every show is as good as Friday’s, it makes sense that people want to catch them all.
Mahal said onstage that you can dance sometimes sitting down, you just have to go to “the right church.” For Taj Mahal, and for Seattle, Jazz Alley has become his Church of the Blues. Amen to that.