TajMo is the collaborative release by blues artists Keb Mo and Taj Mahal, who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his debut album next year. TajMo is also the touring name of their band, currently playing mainly festivals and theaters in the eastern U.S. Mix enjoyed the TajMo tour at a rare club date, at the UC Theatre (Berkeley, Calif.), a 1917 movie palace that was converted to a 1,400-capacity concert venue and re-opened last year.
“Most of our shows have been in sit-down venues,” says front-of-house engineer Aaron Hedden, whose career in live sound included helping to renovate the 300-seat Franklin Theatre (Franklin, Tenn.), where he then served as the house mixer. “The Berkeley date was definitely a different crowd than we normally play to—more of a bar crowd. But that can be a lot of fun.
The legendary Taj Mahal at center stage
Hedden made use of the UC Theatre’s Meyer Sound Leopard P.A. system, but the tour is carrying all of the remaining audio gear and backline needed for a band that ranges in size from two pieces—as the headliners play an acoustic set in the middle of every show—to 11 strong, including keyboards, horns and backing singers.
To prepare for the tour and nail down equipment choices, Hedden and the band got together in Keb Mo’s Nashville home for a first round of rehearsals, and then moved over to Clair Brothers’ facility for a full-blown production rehearsal. “They have a great facility. That’s when we tried out different mic positions and fine-tuned the stage plot,” Hedden says. “We were there for a full week, all except for our young [keyboardist] David Rogers. He had to leave rehearsals a day early to go graduate from Vanderbilt.”
This past May, the band hit the road, carrying two DiGiCo consoles: a brand-new SD12 at FOH and an SD9 for engineer Melissa Britton’s monitor mix. “We used DiGiCo last year, too,” says Hedden, referring to Keb Mo’s tour dates, which the engineer has been mixing for the past three years. “The SD12 is a great fit for this show because it’s a compact size with so many features.
“When we first started rehearsals, the guys showed up with 17 guitars,” he continues. “It’s a complicated show, requiring inputs for on all those guitars, each one needing different EQs and the different compressors. It really helps that the DiGiCo is so flexible on the input channels and on the routing setup. And DiGiCo has been absolutely bulletproof in terms of reliability for us.”
Each show begins with the opening act Black Pacific, made up of Ahmen, Deva and Zoe Mahal: a trio of Taj Mahal’s children.Lovely sibling harmonies, acoustic instruments and relaxed energy set the tone. And then the band takes the stage with Keb Mo, who gets things rolling before Taj Mahal takes his seat.
Hedden’s vocal chains for the two lead vocalists are identical, with each singing into a Neumann KMS105. “It’s a great-sounding condenser micro- phone and it helps us balance the acoustic parts of the show—where we need to get the sweetest sound possible out of the two vocals—with the loud rocking part of the show. This mic works well in both of those situations,” Hedden says. “I also use the new Rupert Neve Designs Shelford channel strip on the two lead vocals up front.”
Many of the instruments are captured with mics from sE Electronics. “We work with their microphones quite a bit,” Hedden says. “They’ve taken great care of us. We mike the guitarists with the sE5s. Mostof [Marcus Finnie’s] drum mics are sE VR1s. The horns [Quentin Ware on trumpet and Dana Robbins on sax] are miked with V7s. Anything I can get from them, I do. Taj’s daughters, who also sing backup, bring their own Telefunken M80 mics, though; that’s what they like to use, and they sound great.”
Stan Sargeant’s bass and most of Rogers’ keyboards are taken direct. “[Rogers’ Korg] Kronos actually doesn’t take a direct box,” Hedden explains. “It’s an active output that goes straight to the console. We’ve closely examined each of those microphones and every one of those direct boxes; Keb, Taj, and Stan use an RNDI from Rupert Neve Designs. Kevin [Moore, aka Keb Mo] likes to ‘nerd out’ on everything on the stage, so every piece has been compared and analyzed. As an engineer, it’s great to work with an artist who cares as much as he does about making sure it’s the best sounding show we can create.”
But of course it’s the artistry and songs at these musicians’ command that makes a great-sounding show: selections from the Tajmo album, such as “All Around the World” and “Waiting on the World to Change”; Keb Mo favorites including “Government Cheese” and “Life Is Beautiful”; and Taj Mahal’s unforgettable recordings, from “Take a Giant Step” to “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes.”
On the monitor end, Keb Mo and the bandmembers listen through Shure PSM1000 in-ear systems, but Taj Mahal still listens through a QSC KW122 wedge. “Taj just likes to hear his own vocal, and relies on the sound of the room created by the FOH mix,” says Hedden. “But Keb always wants his monitor mix to sound like a record. He likes to hear everything that’s going on, on the stage, and Melissa is really good at reproducing that every night.”