No matter the genre, tribute albums tend toward the reverent, as if the musicians and singers doing the saluting don’t want to appear even remotely disrespectful toward their subjects. Thankfully, that’s not the case with his overdue reunion of Americana veterans Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, who first worked together in the cult band the Rising Sons in the Sixties but haven’t made a full album together since.
In its title, cover art, and some of its songs, Get on Board replicates the 1952 Folkways album by blues harp master Sonny Terry and his longtime collaborator, guitarist Brownie McGhee (with percussionist Coyal McMahan also aboard for that project). That record was a set of stomping unplugged blues that felt spontaneous and casual. Mahal and Cooder, who alternate vocals and fretted instruments throughout, extend that mood; starting with their weathered voices, the music feels intimate and lived in, the sound of two old friends jamming away in a small room.
But because they also want to romp things up, what could have been a tasteful salute becomes a record that’s bristlingly, viscerally alive; it’s like a ride in a classic old car with long-gone shock absorbers. Starting with their version of “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door” (which Terry cut on a different album), Cooder and Mahal—joined by Cooder’s son Joachim on bass and drums—dig into the music. Next to the original version, their backbeat is harder, the music just a little bit gnarlier. There’s nothing dainty or prim about it.
That joyful-racket mood continues for the duration of the album, as the three men pay homage to Terry and McGhee’s expansive version of Piedmont blues. A version of the traditional “What a Beautiful City” feels like a gospel sermon, and “Deep Sea Diver” is turned into a saucy piano shuffle (let’s just say that it isn’t about underwater adventures). The sacred, the sinful and even the silly co-exist: Hamming it up through the playful “Cornbread, Peas and Molasses,” which Terry and McGhee co-wrote, you can literally hear Mahal and Ry Cooder cracking either other up as they’re playing.
Given what institutions these men have become, this is music with both nothing at stake and yet everything at the same time. Terry and McGhee’s version of “Packing Up and Getting Ready to Go” was jaunty, but Mahal and the Cooders made it foreboding and ominous. Like the rest of the album, it could have been a yawner of a museum piece, but this song, and this museum, is at the end of a deserted country road, with unsettling noises emanating from the woods around it. In the highest compliment, Terry and McGhee probably would have been honored—and freaked out at the same time.