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

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

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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