Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Isn't It Romantic?

Picture this—A beautiful spring day in 1969. A handsome college sophomore (E.) and his new girlfriend (me) sit on a lush green lawn on the campus of UMass Amherst, listening to a blues musician who calls himself Taj Mahal. The girl wears a pretty white Mexican dress with colorful embroidery on its yoke. Her hair is long and loose. E. wears jeans and cowboy boots. His dark hair and a Western-style mustache add to his cowboy appeal.

Taj Mahal's music is an engaging amalgam of blues and Caribbean rhythms, derivative but entirely original. Among the songs he plays that day is a number called Corinna. The girl (me) instantly loves it. A few years later, when she moves in with E., she's thrilled to find that he owns the record album, Natch'l Blues, on which "Corinna" is featured. They listen to it incessantly. Still later, after they've married, they jokingly agree that if they ever have a baby girl, they'll name her Corinna.

Now picture this—Forty-three years have passed since that concert at UMass. The couple is about to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. They have two sons, so no Corinna in the family, but the wife (me) feels transported back to her youth every time she hears the song. She wonders whether Taj Mahal might still be performing. To her delight, she discovers that he will headline at the Newport Blues & BBQ Festival later that summer. She surprises E. on their anniversary with plans to spend a weekend in Newport, culminating in Taj Mahal's performance at the Blues Festival.

*          *          *

The day of the festival dawns rainy and cool. So much for repeating the past. At least E. and I have brought umbrellas. The festival is scheduled to start at noon, with a total of five acts, culminating in Taj Mahal's performance at 8 p.m.

After forty years, E. has long-since lost the mustache and I don't know what happened to my Mexican dress. We put on sensible shoes and warm clothes and venture forth. We walk along sodden streets to an enormous semi-permanent tent right on the harbor. The tent is closed on three sides. Unfortunately for the BBQ vendors, they aren't under the tent and can't offer their customers much protection from the elements.

E. and I hand over our tickets and get our hands stamped. The wind has whipped up and the rain is really coming down, so we enter the tent. There's plenty of seating on folding chairs, plus there's an open area in the front where fans can stand or dance if they wish. We find that there are still seats available in the front row. Feeling pleased, we grab them.

The first act, a British blues artist, Joanne Shaw Taylor, starts promptly at noon and we realize that we've forgotten a vital fact about music festivals—sound systems are LOUD. The front row turns out not to have been the best idea, after all. And Taylor's style of blues isn't really to our taste. E. and I decide to leave the festival for now and find some earplugs and a lunch that doesn't involve pork, since we're both vegetarians.

The stamps on the backs of our hands are in danger of being washed away by the rain, so we roll up our sleeves and get stamped a second time high up on our arms before exiting the venue. Then we trudge along in search of a CVS where we can buy earplugs—not exactly the idyllic day I had imagined. And while lunch at Panera is fine, it's hardly the charming waterside spot I'd fantasized about.

Once we've purchased earplugs and eaten, we return to the festival locale. The rain is still coming down, but we hear lively Cajun rhythms emanating from the tent. We make it back inside just as Marcia Ball's set is ending, unfortunately for us. The next performer, Shemekia Copeland, is a disappointment, so we opt not to stick around. We spend a pleasant but damp couple of hours exploring the shops of Newport, then return to our hotel room to dry out. We decide to skip the next performer, John Lee Hooker, Jr., entirely and plan to return to the festival after an early dinner, in time for Taj Mahal's performance.

By now, I'm anticipating the worst. Taj Mahal probably won't play a single song I recognize from his early days. After all, he's made well over twenty albums, with forays into Hawaiian music and other genres. Maybe his voice is shot and he won't sound anything like his old self. I'm feeling a little gloomy. But as we're finishing our dinner, a miracle occurs—the sun comes out. We stroll back to the tent in a festive mood.

The place is jammed with happy, mostly intoxicated, people. I only catch one whiff of marijuana. This is more a BBQ and beer bunch. People tend to be in our age range, with a few younger blues fans here and there. We find seats in the middle of the crowd. Shortly after 8 p.m., Taj Mahal walks onto the stage. He's heavier than he used to be, wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt to hide a substantial paunch, but he's still got that unmistakable voice.

He starts off on electric guitar, singing a song I know, though not one I particularly like, followed by several I haven't heard before. At this point, E. and I decide to leave our seats and stand outside the tent's open end, where we can still see the musicians and hear the music while enjoying the now-lovely summer evening.

Taj Mahal puts down his electric guitar and picks up an amplified acoustic. He launches into an old favorite of mine, Fishin' Blues. E. and I smile at one another. This is more like it! The song ends to cheers and applause. Still holding his acoustic guitar, Taj Mahal says, "Now I'm gonna play a little love song I wrote a long time ago." And he starts playing "Corinna".

An almost mystical joy takes hold of E. and me. In unison, we grab one anothers' hands and run from the back of the tent up the aisle all the way to the front, right next to the stage. It doesn't matter that we're in our sixties, surrounded by drunken strangers. At that moment, we're back on the lawn at UMass, where a carefree young musician is singing a catchy song that we'll forever associate with our budding romance.

Click on the photographs to enlarge them. Click on the song titles to hear them and on the artists' names to hear examples of their music.


  1. Funny -- just 2 days ago I ran across some old pictures of you and E. from the early '70's, so could easily picture you two in your youth enjoying Taj Mahal! Lovely story, Barbara!