Taj Mahal, Labor of Love

Labor of Love is one of the most pleasurable albums you're likely to hear all year—and it sounds amazing, too.

In the late 1990s, Tim Duffy, proprietor of the Music Makers Foundation, lured Taj Mahal to go on a 42-city tour with a group of old-time blues musicians. Taj, of course, had his roots in these blues, but he'd long ago strayed into R&B, even rock, earning fame and fortune without selling his soul, and this re-immersion rekindled a passion for the real deal.

As the liner notes to this album tell it, Duffy dragged along some sound gear on the tour, high-end stuff, lent to him by Mark Levinson—B&K microphones and power supplies, a Cello preamp, Apogee A/D converters, and a Nagra-D open-reel digital recorder. One night, in a Houston hotel room, Taj took out his guitar, started strumming and singing, others joined in, and Duffy took it down. A while later, back at Music Makers headquarters, in Hillsboro, NC, Taj sat in on a recording session as a sideman, playing piano, harmonica, hambone, or upright bass.

No one knew quite to do with all this material. A 3-CD Taj Mahal retrospective had just come out; Duffy's tapes from the road seemed awfully old. So they sat around until 2015, when Taj and Duffy took another listen, dropped their jaws, and decided to put the music out there, exclusively on vinyl. An arrangement was made with Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions. Kevin Gray cut the masters from the digital tapes. Kassem's crew in Salina, KS, stamped out the 200-gram QRP pressings on two slabs of vinyl (to accommodate the songs and leave a track's worth of blank space toward the label, to avoid inner-groove distortion). The gatefold cover includes photos of the musicians, taken in casual moments.

And what we have here is magic: classic blues tunes—"Stagger Lee," "My Creole Bell," Mistreated Blues," "Zanzibar," "John Henry," and more—treated with such love and wit and heartache and (to use a tired term that's appropriate here) authenticity. Few field-hand recordings are drenched with this much sweat.

And none of those field-hand recordings (few live or studio recordings, period) sound so vivid. On a few tracks, the singer gets too close to the mic, overloading the preamp's settings; on one track, the harmonica sounds a bit one-dimensional, the bass a bit loose. Otherwise, turn the volume up, to the levels that two or three musicians would put out in your room, and it sounds like they're right there. The strained voices, the finger-picking, fret-sliding guitarists, the rinky-tink piano—so intimate, so live. Analogue Productions' website says the sessions were recorded at 44.1kHz and 16 bits, but if I hadn't known that, I would have bet money that they were done in high-rez or, more likely, analog. It just goes to show: basic digital can sound awfully good if the equipment, mastering, and pressing are awfully good, too.

But the music is the extraordinary thing here. The great sound lets us hear it pure and present, stripping away the gauze of time.

ssimon's picture

Fred, any clue as to whether this will be released as a download or on disc?