If you thought “slack-key” was a button on the TV remote control, think again. The traditional Hawaiian musical style sounds similar to bottleneck or slide guitar, but with a looser feel and perhaps a tad more vibrato. In any event, couch surfers and pipeline riders alike are directed to Taj Mahal’s new album, which finds the veteran blues, folk, and world-music artist adding yet another branch to his considerable collection of roots.
On Hanapepe Dream, Mahal detunes his guitar and relaxes the pressure: As he’s done throughout his career, he continues to refer back to and update his blues foundation. The most obvious examples of this are tropical renditions of “Stagger Lee” and “My Creole Belle” — both staples of Mahal’s live set. “King Edward’s Throne” boasts old-timey, Leon Redbone-esque overtones, although Mahal’s gruff baritone and slight patois accent suggest a lusty pirate more than a Dustbelt-era entertainer. Another highlight is a cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” which veers more toward Dylan’s folksy storytelling than Hendrix’ acid pyrotechnics — although there is something sorta psychedelic about a sustained slack-key note. And on “Moonlight Lady,” the romantic imagery and ambience are so strong, you can almost see the gulls, smell the ocean, and feel the sand between your toes.
Mahal’s minimalist style of playing and singing works well with the Hawaiian theme, and the Hula Blues Band plays its role to perfection, supplying just the right amount of horns, drums, and the occasional flute — making this an easy choice for slack-key rookies and aficionados alike.
Taj Mahal plays Friday, June 27, at the Fillmore in SF.