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Taj Mahal
Dancing the Blues
(Private Music)
By Bob Weinberg

"Blues ain't nothin' but a good man feelin' bad." It's a common misperception. In fact, an old blues album I picked up even has an ad inside the jacket for an antidepressant drug. But if you're listening right, you won't need the Elavil. This music makes you feel good.

Oh sure, there are plenty of sad blues songs. But you won't find 'em on Taj Mahal's latest slab, Dancing the Blues. A celebration of black music, Dancing pays homage to Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew (the loping bounce of "Going to the River," the raucous "I'm Ready"), Louis Jordan (a sensual version of Jesse Mae Robinson's "Blue Light Boogie"), the Big O (a Redding-faithful reading of "That's How Strong My Love Is"), and the Four Tops (a lightly reggaed "I Can't Help Myself [Sugar Pie Honeybunch])." Blues and R&B fans will be most excited by a jukebox-joltin' "Mockingbird," sung in duet with the great Etta James.

And of course Taj hasn't forgotten up-from-the-Delta Chicago blues as he uptempos Howlin' Wolf's "Sitting on Top of the World," utilizing that hardbreak piano-drums boogie Wolf was so fond of. It's also one of only two instances where Taj plays guitar (a National Steel), which, besides his swallowed-a-cinder-block vocals, is how he made his name.

Although more pickwork from the frontman would have been a treat (as anyone who's seen him live can attest), his band is composed of some top session men who keep things lively: Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward and keyboardist Bill Payne (who've also done time with Buddy Guy as of late), bassman Bob Glaub, and outstanding pianist Ian MacLagan (of Rolling Stones fame). But it's Taj Mahal's vocals that command center stage. A great mimic, he croons like Ray Charles/Charles Brown, rasps like Wolf (an almost eerie likeness), and drawls like Muddy Waters. More than just imitating, Taj evokes the mood of the times when these songs were popular, particularly with his scatting and blind-pig tales on numbers such as "Strut" and "Blue Light Boogie."

The Taj is also an accomplished songwriter (he penned the now-standard "She Caught the Katy"), but Dancing is really a payback-to-the-heroes album rather than a Taj Mahal showcase. However, one of two original tunes -- the album's harmonica-driven opener, "Blues Ain't Nothin'" -- proves that the strapping blues scholar belongs in such esteemed company.

Taj Mahal performs tonight (Thursday) at 9:00 at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $25 and $27.

Chapterhouse
Blood Music
(Arista)
By J.C. Herz

Blood Music is one of those ravy British albums that is oh-so-aware of its own expert studio work. Rhythmically complex and hooky, this is a better-than-average record in the Ned's Atomic Dustbin school of trippy U.K. dance music. It doesn't forsake guitars, but mixes them well into the synthetic goulash -- marshmallow-soft vocals floating over percussive echoes, cathedral reverb, a bilingual haze of spoken-word samples, and a fat bass register. This album begs to be pumped through a crowd of 2000 teens on X. Live drums? Not bloody likely.

Fortunately, Chapterhouse doesn't just layer beats on a grid. To the contrary, "On the Way to Fly" spins so many polyrhythms together that it almost takes off. Triplets and sixes against the beat, plus guitars pushed into rhythm support -- man, for keyboard music, this sucker swings. Ditto for "There's Still Life," melody melted over a woozy three-plus-three-plus-two groove. An outro raga reference leads directly into the heavy guitars and drum thwacks of "We Are the Beautiful," with its creamy, dreamy chorus: "Come on into this beauty thing/Come on in, we are the beautiful." It could almost be a signpost on South Beach.

Al Stewart
Famous Last Words
(Mesa)
By Bob Weinberg
Still living in the year of the cat.

No, there've been no time passages for Al Stewart. But that's not a bad thing, exactly. Despite Stewart's tendencies toward the precious and nostalgic, Famous Last Words is a beautiful, well-written, and well-conceived album. Al always did have a great ear, and the melodies included here will lodge themselves in your cerebral cortex, particularly the rollicking "Feel Like" and "Genie on a Table Top."

And for those who weren't paying attention in the Seventies (was anyone?), Stewart's acoustic-guitar mastery may also come as a surprise -- dig his flamenco-flavored picking on the catchy "Trespasser" or his hard rhythmic strumming on "Feel Like."

And if you really weren't paying attention, you may not have realized Stewart's facility with the pen. "Trains," one of Last Words's strongest tracks, traces the significance of riding the rails, both in the historical and personal sense: "Trains, what became of the innocence they had in childhood games?/Painted red or blue, when I was young/They all had names/Who'll remember the ones/Who only rode in them to die/All their lives just a smudge of smoke against the sky." Also mining the rich, quasi-mystical (think Donovan) Victorian vein is the lovely and haunting "Charlotte Corday," co-written with hot young songstress Tori Amos.

In less skillful hands, much of this material might seem pretentious, if not downright laughable. But Stewart navigates those midnight rocks with a deft touch, creating an enjoyable and often artful collection of songs.

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