Great Tunes, Bad Clapping

Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples

At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Tuesday, April 25.

Reviewed by Ethan Stewart

It never really came together last Tuesday night during the Mavis Staples and Taj Mahal concert at UCSB. A full house of folks showed up at Campbell Hall for a night of world-class and soulful music to the 10th degree and — while the artists did everything but disappoint — the audience never seemed to bite. Maybe it was the quasi-embarrassing soundboard malfunction that kicked off Mavis’s set, the rigid dance-hating auditorium style seating, or the fact that the crowd never quite figured out the whole clap-along and “uh-hunh!” chorus that Taj repeatedly asked for. But whatever the reason, the night never quite became the exercise in transcendence that was expected given the twin billing of two charismatic performers.

Crash and burn of audience participation aside, Mavis and Taj certainly held up their end of the bargain. The 65-years-young Staples was a pint-sized power pack of gospel stylings and stirring soul singing. Complemented by a more-than-sufficient backup band and the vocals of her sister Yvonne, Mavis revisited classic Staples Singers hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” while adding in cuts from her first studio album in more than 10 years, including the title track “Have a Little Faith” and the haunting ode to Hurricane Katrina victims, “God Is Not Sleeping.” Of additional note in her set was the classic guitar riffing and classic Chicago blues styling of Wil Crosby.

For his part, Taj Mahal was every bit the living legend whom Santa Barbara audiences have become familiar with throughout the years. His patent blend of Creole, Caribbean, and county blues simply warms the soul and puts a smile on your face that seems to start in your stomach. Dedicating everything “to the ladies,” Taj fingerpicked his way through signature classics such as “Corrina,” “Creole Belle,” and his encore finale “Loving in My Baby’s Eyes.”

But it was in the tunes “Fishing Blues” and the “Unh-hunh Blues” that Taj seemed desperately to want the crowd — whom he repeatedly referred to as being “very attentive” — to break free from their seats and join in with the good times he was offering up. There was no doubt that the music more than warranted it. But reluctant — and often off-beat — clappers, along with half-hearted aisle dancers and way too many sitting-down bodies forced Taj to remark mid-song, “Come on people! Turn off the fear!” It wasn’t until his final song and encore that the crowd — which had noticeably thinned by then — finally began to come to life. That said, the music was by all accounts beautiful and uplifting, two things that are understandably uncomfortable in an environment better suited for lectures and calculus class.

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