Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder
Credit: Abby Ross
by Josh Hurst Music Rooted & Restless

Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder — Get on Board

June 22, 2022

Get on Board is a unique party record, a boisterous celebration of the folk-blues tradition that hoots and hollers with roiling joy.

To hear Ry Cooder tell it, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were always his guys. Recalling the alien intensity of Howlin’ Wolf and the like, Cooder remembers being a teenager and finding himself pulled in by the casual virtuosity and easeful demeanor of Terry and McGhee’s work, particularly their 1952 Folkways recording Get On Board. The music made enough of an impact on him, along with his decades-long-on-again, off-again collaborator Taj Mahal, that the two of them cut a full-length Terry/McGhee tribute album in early 2022, replicating the title and half of the tracklist from that Folkways classic, even modeling their album cover off the original’s striking black-and-white photography. 

Such fastidiousness attests to real subject-matter expertise, and listening to the retooled Get On Board will leave little doubt that Cooder and Mahal wore out the grooves on their old Sonny & Brownie LPs. But it also suggests that this might be one of those historical projects meant to edify and impress through a commitment to period detail. Happily, Cooder and Mahal have constructed something infinitely more valuable, not to mention playable: A record that feints toward archivalist purity even as it hoops and hollers with roiling joy and tangible glee. Put differently: It’s a party record, a boisterous witness not just to how great those old folk-blues sides are, but to the enduring impact that a formative musical experience can have. To hear Cooder and Mahal perform these songs, seemingly in a rush of memory — you’ll often hear one of them start off a tune as if reminding the other of how it goes, before the whole band kicks in with a wallop, or else hear takes punctuated by giddy laughter —is to behold two masters reconnect with a visceral, adolescent, life-changing pleasure. 

Part of the wallop is supplied by Cooder’s son Joachim, a drummer whose raucous thump and rattling maracas lend these songs a punchy, kinetic energy. There are some occasional studio effects, as well — the haunted, after-hours groove in “Packing Up Getting Ready to Go” could almost pass for a lost Latin Playboys jam — but by and large this is an unvarnished affair, with Cooder and Mahal very much running the show. They wisely avoid cosplay or studious recreation; Mahal, in particular, excels by blowing some spirited harmonica work without ever sounding like he’s trying to replicate Brownie’s unique style. And that’s really the key to what makes Get on Board so successful: These guys know what they’re doing but lead with feeling rather than academic knowledge, something that’s evident right out of the gate with their gleeful snarl in “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door.” Elsewhere, they invigorate old warhorses like “The Midnight Special,” veering toward the raw and rambunctious as opposed to amber-preserved folklore. They dip into ribald humor (“Deep Sea Diver,” a wonderfully shameless innuendo), rural vernacular (“Pick a Bale of Cotton”), and loving nonsense (“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”). The lowbrow stuff rubs elbows with more high-minded material, notably a shuffling take on “I Shall Not Be Moved,” but the real pleasure of this album is how it renders such distinctions irrelevant: Here, even the most sacred songs sound earthy, and even the most vulgar sound like they could ostensibly change a life.

Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 3.