Cheer up with the blues

Taj Mahal is crown jewel in this year’s Summit lineup

Taj Mahal circa 1968
Michael Callahan | Boulder Weekly

When the second incarnation of the Boulder Roots & Blues Summit kicks off this weekend at the Boulder Theater and Fox Theatre, audiences will be able to take their pick from a smorgasbord of musical delights ranging from hirsute folk rocker Anders Osborne to silky smooth bluesman Keb’ Mo’ — with Colorado group Musketeer Gripweed mixed in as fodder for local sourcers.

Yet organizers scored a coup when farming out the lineup for this year’s event, adding Grammy Award-winning American blues guitarist and roots instrumentalist Taj Mahal to the bill. In town to help celebrate Colorado’s support for unique music along with celebrating his 70th birthday, the headline act epitomizes not only the musical genres touted in the Summit, but some of the ideals associated with the city throwing the party as well.

A routine conversation last week intended to tout his own Boulder appearance May 18 — featuring “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin, Taj’s daughter Deva Mahal (along with her New Zealand-based touring outfit Fredericks Brown) and Keb’ Mo’ — turned into a free-flowing conversation touching many different topics. Like the Renaissance man that he is, the rambling-yet-focused conversation took many turns, but in the end came back to the same interplay between humans that define our times here on this marble.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India, was a labor of love that took 22 years to complete. More than 300 years after completion of the original, with a body of work more than twice as long in the making, Taj Mahal has firmly planted his own taproot in the garden of American music. American to the core, he shares a passion for some of the most valued commodities we care about besides the sometimes-polluted air.

“There are two things that people are not gonna do without, and that’s food and that is music,” he says. “These two things are part of the natural world to me.”

A proponent of local farming as well as farming one’s cultural roots, Taj Mahal has a unique perspective on the values of sustainable agriculture and American roots music, both from studying agriculture at the University of Massachusetts and from working on a dairy farm before becoming a musician. Exploring cultural styles and moving forward with a learned abandon, he has belied stereotypes and bypassed some of the more traditional levers of commercial power in fashioning his Johnny Appleseed-like career.

Taj Mahal grew up in a time when the natural state of things saw people growing their own food while humming their own native music from different areas of the globe. In a startling reverse of where we were just a century ago, the norm now is that a small percentage of people provide for all of society — while people have stopped humming their native music and replaced it with whatever mass-produced ditty they heard on TV, radio, the Internet, etc.

These experiences helped develop new perspectives for Taj, who says he wonders why some American families didn’t listen to music in the home, let alone talk about their heritage or cultural roots.

“How many Americans do you see, when you ask where they’re from, they say, ‘Cleveland!’ Uh, OK. … Where are you from in the world?” he says.

The newly christened septuagenarian believes in a resilient America that has more cultural potential to tap into than that which we normally use in our day-to-day existence. It’s just going to take a little effort. Or as Mahal says, “You can’t be afraid to work. You gotta get up and earn yours. You got a big pile of manure in front of you, you gotta get to shoveling.”

It’s a philosophy that permeates throughout the weekend’s performers. Fellow Blues & Roots participant Anders Osborne — who plays acoustically with Keb’ Mo’ at the Boulder Theater the afternoon of May 19 and then headlines his own show at the Fox later that evening — opened up about the importance of gaining insight from outside sources while simultaneously sustaining local wares.

“I think you get influenced by a lot of different styles when you’re traveling; it’s inspiring to hear different cultures’ stuff,” says Osborne, who recently released a new disc called Black Eye Galaxy. “You don’t hear each country’s folk songs unless you seek them out. I’m not a preacher or anything, but I think you should seek out your own regional music and support it and know why it’s there.”

Save for gospel, most American music that bubbled up from the black community initially met disdain from white audiences. As such, the genre that Taj Mahal inhabits has been subjugated to all sorts of scorn by the powers that be.

“For a lot of years the music industry didn’t pay much attention to this great music, and we decided to take it upon ourselves to make sure that it would be around, and get orally passed on to another generation,” Mahal says. “It’s easy for us to start complaining and blaming corporations or whoever on problems, but that’s the bad news.”

He would rather focus on the positives, like locally grown food and sustainability for self and city.

“There’s all kinds of great things going on as a result of people finally saying, ‘I’ve stood all I can stand, I can’t stand no more,’” he says.

Given that most Boulderites are committed to their health, there should be no problem remaining upright this weekend at the Blues & Roots Summit, as the dissemination of music by some great names will provide ample energy. After all, there will be a 70-year-old man funneling a theater’s worth of movement right back at the audience, mirroring the labor of love that built his namesake.

Or, as Taj Mahal says, “It’s like anything else, man. Positive input? Positive output.”

ON THE BILL: The Boulder Blues & Roots Summit takes
place at the Boulder Theater and the Fox Theatre May 18-19. Performers
include Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Anders Osbourne and more. For a full
schedule, visit