Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder played together during the mid-'60s as part of roots rock band Rising Sons and cut an unreleased album for Columbia. In 1968, Cooder, then 17, played guitar behind Jesse Ed Davis on Mahal's eponymously titled Columbia debut. The raucous, woolly, Get On Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee places them in the studio together for the first time in more than 50 years. All 11 songs are drawn from the Terry-McGhee catalog, including three that originally appeared on the guitar-and-harmonica duo's 1952 Folkways recording Get On Board (even the album cover was modeled on the original). Terry and McGhee made records, but as fresh fare for their many live performances -- they toured constantly during the '50s and '60s. Their influence and impact on Mahal and Cooder is incalculable; it completely informed their long careers. Though this pair are grizzled veterans, they perform with the joy of a Saturday-night jam session, rendering the material with rowdy exuberance, killer vibes, and chops galore.
On 1952's Get On Board, Terry and McGhee were accompanied by Coyal McMahan on maracas. Here, Cooder's son Joachim joins on bass and percussion. Mahal takes on the role of harmonicist Terry. He is one of the most innovative and resonant blues singers in history, and like Terry, he offers amazing rhythmic statements with both voice and harp. (His lusty delivery on opener "My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door" is alone worth the album's price tag.) Cooder claims guitarist McGhee as his role model here. His strumming and fingerpicking styles were directly inspired by his predecessor's playing technique. On the same opening tune, Cooder's distorted electric strum provides the bountiful grit and groove quotient for his partner. He takes the lead vocal on a jaunty version of the standard "The Midnight Special." Mahal's harmonica and backing vocal offer inventive lyricism and pulsing rhythm accompaniment as Joachim bangs on boxes and snares underneath. "Deep Sea Diver" is rendered with Mahal playing barrelhouse piano. Atop a filthy electric guitar, Cooder delivers one of his most impassioned, soulful vocals. Mahal grunts, growls, and snarls in "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" as Cooder punctuates the lines with a biting acoustic slide and affirmative shouted commentary. "Cornbread, Peas, Black Molasses" is a homesick country blues sung in duet amid wrangling guitars and wailing harp. "Packing Up Getting Ready to Go" has modern sonics, staggered vocal harmonies, and swampy midnight guitar from Cooder; the lyrics reference death and salvation as imminent. Get On Board closes with the gospel nugget "I Shall Not Be Moved," offered loosely as spiritual conviction, truth, and a symbol of earthly resistance to injustice amid joyfully strummed guitars, piping harp, and thudding percussion. Mahal and Cooder stay close to the originals, but whether faithfully evoking the sound and spirit of their mentors or using them as lift-off points for expansion, this glorious album honors their subjects with joy and swagger as well as devotion.