The colorfully written Hollywood Bowl program bio of Deva Mahal, the opening act on a midweek slate that included rocker Melissa Etheridge and her father, the legendary Taj Mahal, and holding court with Keb’ Mo, says it all about not only her but every performer on the bill: she was born with blues in her blood. All were fantastic choices to headline the Bowl’s special once a year blues night that’s part of their annual Wednesday night jazz schedule.
Deva, most likely a fresh presence to most in attendance, opened the show with a gritty, funky, high energy set that let us know she’s not only interested in honoring her dad’s formidable, decades long legacy, but expanding upon it and making blues and soul hip for a whole new generation. Cutting a striking figure in her flowing red dress and white turban, the singer drew the crowd into her pop, funk, rock and gospel tinged blues vibe with a batch of the most compelling cuts from her intensely heartfelt, soul searching debut album Run Deep.
She couched anthems like “Run Deep” and “Optimist” in fresh, funky beats and jangling guitars. Adding textures of coolness and “wokeness” to the show were guest appearances by a rapper with the same name as a blues legend (Koko Taylor) and the always welcome voice of soul-jazz great Ledisi on both lead and harmony vocals on “It’s Down To You.”
It was fascinating to learn that Melissa Etheridge, who has been a powerful presence in pop/rock since the late 80s and scored smash after smash in the 90s, had never brought her edgy energy, raspy vocals and deeply insightful lyrics to the Bowl stage before. Based on her mainstream success in pop/rock over the past three decades, she at first seems like a curious choice for Blues night. Her “in” was “Memphis Rock and Soul,” her stunning 2016 Stax Tribute album that debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues chart in 2016. If you’ve heard it, you know that her blistering rock edges simmer confidently in the classic blues/soul realm.
Backed by a fiery three piece horn section, her set was a freewheeling mix of high octane jams and searing ballads from that album (“Hold On I’m Coming,” “Respect Yourself,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember”) and her own, instantly recognizable classics (“I Want To Come Over,” “Come To My Window,” “I’m The Only One”). Etheridge’s voice is uniquely suited to the pain of songs like Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” but she balanced those darker, haunting moments with lighthearted, witty anecdotes that speak to her multi-faceted truth as a musical storyteller.
Charming, charismatic, soulful and passionate as they were, longtime blues brothers Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ didn’t concern themselves with topping Etheridge’s intense energy in their diverse, colorful set. Celebrating their recent Grammy win for their long overdue duet album Tajmo, they simply played soulfully , crisply and meticulously, creating fresh and inviting electric and acoustic guitar driven conversations, both musically and verbally. The seated Mahal often riffed spontaneously (or so it seemed!) with witty spoken rejoinders off Keb’s more straightforward lead vocal lines.
Instrumentally, it was fun to hear Mahal’s ace harmonica work and regale at the diversity of all the stringed instruments in Keb’s arsenal, from the resonator to mandolin to uke. Highlights of their friendly, spirited set included Mahal classics like “Senor Blues” and the New Orleans flavored “Cakewalk Into Town,” Keb’s hilarious and more relevant than ever satire “Government Cheese” and top tracks from Tajmo - including the whimsical geography lesson “Don’t Leave Me Here” and the folksy dual acoustic romp “Diving Duck Blues.”