Happy Just to Be Like I Am

by: Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal had mapped out a unique vision of country blues and its ethnographic sources on his first three albums, and his fourth LP, Happy Just to Be Like I Am, continued in a similar vein while broadening his scope at the same time. Anyone who delivers an arrangement of "Oh Susanna" that marries a hard-boogeying rhythm section with a fife as lead instrument is clearly not aiming for a purist's approach to the blues, and Mahal was willing to bring a bit more contemporary rhythm & blues into his formula here, with the title track boasting the kind of groove and melodic lift that should have earned it a place on the radio (through the fact a tuba accompanies an electric bass in the bottom end might have puzzled a few programmers), and "Chevrolet" bubbling with potent, organic funk. But Mahal was (and is) far too enamored of eclecticism to make an entire album that follows a single direction, and the steel drum reverie of "West Indian Revelation," the mixture of African percussion and steel guitar on "Black Spirit Boogie," and the acoustic blues with tuned cowbells on "Eighteen Hammers" are all the work of a man eager to twist his music into a variety of different forms. While Mahal's vision grew broader on Happy Just to Be Like I Am, the album didn't have quite the same focus as his previous sets, and the parts don't cohere into a whole that's as satisfying as his earlier work. But the best songs are impressive, Mahal's collaborators are stellar (including Jesse Ed Davis, John Simon, and Kwasi "Rocky" DziDzornu), and every track is filled with a palpable joy; it's a fine collection from one the most cheerful iconoclasts of the blues. ~ Mark Deming

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