With a 40-year career spanning multiple instruments and musical styles, Taj Mahal is the kind of musician who invites hyperbole.
Just consider his stage name – a name he shares with one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
But although the pioneering bluesman behind the name has earned many accolades and two Grammys, Mahal – playing Saturday night in Olympia as part of the Taj Mahal Trio – doesn’t set himself apart from his band and crew. He’s a solid, grounded man who values close friendships, good food, fishing and fun.
“Sometimes, there’s kind of a division between the headliner artist and the other musicians,” said Bill Kiely of Port Townsend, who’s organized Northwest shows for Mahal over the past decade and traveled the region with the band. “That’s not the way with Taj.”
The artist maintains an active touring schedule at age 67. Saturday’s concert, with bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith, is his first Olympia show in four years. He’ll be playing guitar, piano, banjo and harmonica.
“The guys that Taj is working with are real salt-of-the-earth people,” Kiely said. “These are guys that would help you build a fence and dig a trench if the situation called for it. They’re really good guys, and they are family to Taj.”
The musician seems to have friends wherever he goes – certainly in this area. “Taj has got a lot of connection to the Northwest,” Kiely said. “He spends a week every year up here at Thanksgiving. He plays at (Seattle’s) Jazz Alley and stays with family and friends on one of the islands.”
Of course, the two-time Grammy winner has famous friends, too. His last release, 2008’s “Maestro,” includes guest performances by Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Angelique Kidjo, Los Lobos and Ziggy Marley.
“This record is just the beginning of another chapter, one that’s going to be open to more music and more ideas,” Mahal has said. “Even at the end of 40 years, in many ways my music is just getting started.”
Life on the road seems to be no hardship for Mahal. Wherever he goes, he has a good time. In Olympia, he and the band will eat a New Orleans-flavored meal catered by Billy Roberson of Cicada and A2 Cajun Cafe.
The menu is still being decided, said Audrey Henley, manager of the Capitol Theater, where Mahal will play. “We’re looking at yummy New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp and chorizo-stuffed pork loin chop with shoestring yams.”
“He’s a real foodie,” Kiely said. “He’s a real cook himself. In a kitchen where a professional chef is cooking Taj’s dinner, he’s asking questions and getting recipes that he’ll be making himself later.”
Maybe sometimes he’ll even be cooking something he caught himself. “He likes to throw a line in the water everywhere he goes,” Kiely said. “At 7 in the morning, after a show when they are loading the bus, he’s coming up the street with his fishing rod telling you how the fishing was.”
And his enthusiasm for detail isn’t limited to a few favorite topics.
“He just goes on and on like a college professor,” Kiely said. “Any subject you bring up, pretty soon you are writing down the names of the books that Taj recommends that you should read.”
But if the professor in him might talk about the Taj Mahal, the performer in him shares its name. Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, the musician began using his stage name in college, after it came to him in a dream. And he dresses the part.
“He gets shined up like a game cock,” Kiely said. “He’s got on aftershave. He is still a ladies’ man. He’s singing love songs, and it’s not to humanity in general. It’s to the womenfolk out there. Four or five beautiful ladies will be backstage wanting autographs.”