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What Is Hip? I Say It's Maria Muldaur, Irma Thomas, and Taj Mahal

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I try to be hip. Why that's important to anyone over 18 is a mystery, but still I admit, I want to "get my Bon Iver on." I want to be current, finger on the pulse, blah blah blah. I read Brooklyn Vegan...occasionally. But I just don't get excited when I hear the news about upcoming Birdmonster concerts, or new recordings by Deerhoof or Deerhunter or...Deerabby, or whoever. I'm not saying these artists are unworthy of a listen. As a matter of fact, the Bon Iver CD is quite beautiful, in it's own "very indie, too hip for words, so low-fi it hurts" kind of way. (and I say that with all due respect)

I have 3 CDs in heavy rotation the last few weeks. One just released, one about to be released, and one that is due at the end of September. All three of these CDs are by artists who have been around the block and back. They have a combined 100 releases under their belts. And while none of these artists has had a chart-topping hit since the 70's or before, each is at the top of his game.

So while we get excited about Conor Oberst and Iron & Wine, can't we make a little room for Maria Muldaur, Irma Thomas, and Taj Mahal without losing street cred? I say "YES!"

40 years after the folk revival of the 60's, Maria Muldaur has assembled some legendary female vocalists for her July Telarc release "Yes We Can," a very powerful selection of protest songs that not only work as commentary on the state of the world, but musically, hit every high note. Muldaur, never sounding better, along with Bonnie Raitt, Odetta, Joan Baez and Phoebe Snow to name but a few, sing from the soul. Fresh takes on Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," Bob Dylan's "License To Kill," Earl King's "Make A Better World, " and Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can" sit nicely alongside such traditional tunes as "John Brown," and "Down By The Riverside." Maybe not quite as "hip" as Duffy, but it doesn't get much better musically.

Hitting the...uh...store...on Tuesday, is "Simply Grand," the new release from the "Queen Of New Orleans," Irma Thomas. Miss Thomas has never really gone away, releasing some fine CDs in every decade since her legendary chart-toppers of the sixties and up until Katrina's devastation, performing regularly at her own New Orleans night spot The Lion's Den. Yet, her first post-Katrina release, "After The Rain" seemed like a bit of a comeback. A collection of songs that, although claiming to be written and recorded before the storm, seemed to reach out to everyone who was affected by it's wrath. This beautiful and moving CD gave Irma Thomas her very first Grammy Award and paved the way for it's follow-up.

"Simply Grand" pairs Miss Thomas with a dozen of music's finest piano players. New Orleans' favorites Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, Jon Cleary, Henry Butler, David Torkanowsky and Davell Crawford, as well as Randy Newman, Norah Jones and John Medeski all contribute to this stripped down recording. But the real star is Miss Thomas, who after 40 years, has released two consecutive CDs that are arguably the best of her career. Both Jones and Newman offer up their own "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" and "Thinking About You," respectively, while Dr. John and Jon Cleary offer up originals that they had written but never recorded. "Simply Grand" is by no means a Gospel record, but you will feel reborn after one listen. Every loss, big or small, every moment of joy ever experienced by Miss Thomas is reflected in her powerful performance. Check out her take of the Dinah Washington standard "This Bitter Earth," with Mr. Ellis Marsalis. Pretty damn "hip," I'd say.

Due at the end of September from Heads Up, is the new recording from blues legend Taj Mahal. "Maestro," like Muldaur's and Thomas' releases, also features some very special guests. Ben Harper and Jack Johnson (Hey, they're pretty hip with the youngsters,) as well as Los Lobos and Angelique Kidjo all contribute to what is one of Taj's strongest releases to date. Taj Mahal has dabbled in everything from folk blues to calypso to New Orleans funk and R&B, and during his 40 year career has done it all quite convincingly. "Maestro" gives us the best of it all. From the gorgeous Reggae lilt of "Never Let You Go," to the faux-60s psychedelic funk of "Dust Me Down," right through the traditional African rhythms of "Black Man Brown Man" with Miss Kidjo and the swamp blues of "Strong Man Holler," Taj Mahal sounds inspired.

As vital as Maria Muldaur, Irma Thomas, and Taj Mahal continue to be, at a time in their lives when they certainly don't have to prove anything, something tells me there won't be quite the fervor over these releases that will be felt over the upcoming releases from say...the Kings Of Leon, or Plain White T's or Pretty Ricky or Ra Ra Riot. And THAT is not "hip."