Ry Cooder’s Election Special
Taj Mahal: Hidden Treasures 1969-1973
Reviews by John Zavesky
Ry Cooder is mad as hell and is not going to take it any more. Cooder has picked up Howard Beal’s angry mantra and come back with a political vengeance on his latest release, Election Special. This is Cooder’s most musically successful album since
To begin with the album’s strengths, Cooder has produced probably the best pure protest album of American music since the 1960s, full of anger and fight. Cooder goes after Romney, the GOP, bankers, Tea Party folk, and Sarah Palin. Considering the talking points over women’s reproductive rights and immigration alone, the GOP has made it easy for just about anyone to take a shot at them. That is where a certain frustration comes in. Cooder has a golden opportunity to nail conservatives to the wall and he frequently ends up hurling wide broad-shots, as in “Going to
I’m goin’ to
Got my credentials in my overalls
I can’t take you with me little darlin’
I’m goin’ down to get my ashes hauled
Progressives are smart enough to know that the Republican Party is run by people in $3,000 suits, not hayseeds wearing overalls. But this is a minor gripe.
Cooder is known more for his musicianship than his lyrics and this is where he has chosen to stake his ground. Election Special rocks, it rolls, it moans with the blues and it kicks back with country. Cooder has given us one of the most musically topical albums of American roots music since Woody Guthrie was singing on the radio. Over the album’s nine songs Cooder has musically encapsulated nearly every political issue—from the GOP’s attempt to disenfranchise Americans through voter ID legislation, immigration, the economy and women’s reproductive rights.
“Mutt Romney Blues” is a quasi-country blues song dealing with the GOP candidate’s mistreated canine. A decent lead-off number to get the listener primed for what is about to come. In “Brother is Gone” one of those musically deceiving songs. Cooder has crafted a beautiful mandolin-driven melody laid over lyrics that paint a dark political landscape:
Immigration bills and foreclosure homes
States’ rights we proclaimed
Like in the old Jim Crow days
Our highest aim was to take your vote away
“Wall Street Part of Town” and “
Cooder has taken a bold risk in producing an album consisting entirely of protest songs directly centered on this year’s presidential election. The album is basically a do it yourself project with Cooder and his son, Joachim, handling most studio duties. While none of Cooder’s songs are as catchy as Country Joe’s, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” all fall well within Guthrie’s perimeter of a protest song. That’s not bad company to keep. Cooder recorded Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” on his first album in 1970. Cooder has answered that question loudly with Election Special.
In celebration of Taj Mahal’s 70th birthday, Columbia Records has released. The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969- 1973. The two disc set covers Taj’s material from when he was a fire-breathing blues player at a time that B.B. King, Muddy Waters and the Stones were all practicing their craft to stadium crowds. Disc One has its high points. The disc is aimed at Taj Mahal fans who want to dig deeper into the career of an artist when he was just beginning to hit his stride. All of the tracks include Jesse Ed Davis on guitar—an added bonus.
There are two versions of “Sweet Mama Janisse.” The first version offers a rare glimpse of an artist crafting their material. The mix of “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie” puts Taj’s whistle at the forefront of his excellent backing band.
In the opening of “You Ain’t No Streetwalker, Honey But I Do Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff,” Taj is explaining to the musicians, a capella, how he envisions the song should sound before the band kicks it off. It is “fly on the wall” moments like that and the opening of “Good Morning Little School” that give this collection an interesting insight into Mahal’s recording techniques. The multi-instrumental musician cutting loose with a rousing banjo solo on “Shady Grove” is another gem. The CD closes with a tasty instrumental, “Butter.” The song is harp-driven and laid back, but the title completely eludes me as this is clearly “People Get Ready.”
Disc Two contains the entire set Taj performed at the Royal Albert Hall on April 18, 1970 when he opened for Carlos Santana and Johnny Winter. The show encapsulates the blues from its most basic to its most raucous. Taj starts off with an a capella version of “Runnin’ by the
The rest of the material is performed with the band, including Jesse Ed Davis. They ease their way into “Sweet Mama Janisse” and the room begins to rumble like a
The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal may be over 40 years old, but the material is a killer.The concert disc alone is worth the price of admission to hear Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis play some of the meanest, sweetest, rollicking down home blues ever laid to record.
John Zavesky’s work has appeared in Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Palestine-Chronicle, Dissident Voice, Los Angeles Times, and other publications