By Steve Hochman
In 1967, acoustic guitarists Max Ochs and Harry Taussig were each featured on “Contemporary Guitar,” an album sampler-of-sorts put out by John Fahey’s Takoma Records label to spotlight some of those in what was termed the “American primitive” form. Also featuring tracks from Robbie Basho, Mississippi blues veteran Bukka White and Fahey himself.
Last night, fifty years later, the two shared a stage for the first time for a concert at the fine new Zebulon club alongside the Los Angeles River in the area known as Frogtown. The occasion was the release of “The Music of Harry Taussig & Max Ochs” on devoted fan Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square label, featuring five new recordings by the former and three by the latter, commemorating that Takoma album — they being the only contributors to it still living.
For that matter, as improbable as it may seem, this evening was the first time the two had ever met. But the rapport was natural, and their respective approaches complementary. Taussig observed that in the decades since that original album, they’ve veered in somewhat differing directions, Ochs devoted to raga-type explorations and the foundational blues repertoire (he played some Blind Willie Johnson and Charley Patton this night), Taussig taking increasing inspiration from such realms as Gregorian chant (one piece was an interpretation of such) and 20th/21st century classical music.
But there was still much overlap in their approaches, both clearly still part of the greater Fahey galaxy in which blues, old-timey, ragas, classical and sonic experiments blended together in highly personal combinations. Taking turns through the show, they passed a six-string back and forth. Ochs sang some, Taussig did not. Ochs played a few songs on another axe, Hawaiian style, with a bottleneck slide, while Taussig did about half of his on a resonant, buzzing twelve-string — which Ochs late in the set asked to borrow, re-tuning it to a different open chord than Taussig had been employing. When he handed it back, Taussig took it as a challenge and played a piece in that tuning. (See videos of each taking a turn below.)
Obscure in legend as these two are, they brought in a nice crowd, appreciative and enthusiastic, young and, uh, not young alike. There was a brisk business for the vinyl and CDs of albums from each artist that Rosenthal has released, both archival and new. The two were going on to do three more shows in the Bay Area. And then… well, who knows? They live on different coasts (Ochs east, Taussig west). Now, though, having seen them play together, but separately (save for a closing duo with crowd sing-along on Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train”), it’s tantalizing to think what they might do if they made music together together.
As for Zebulon, it’s a wonderful addition to the L.A. music circuit, the concert room in back well thought out (co-owner Mia Doi Todd, a treasured artist herself, having taken the lead in that) and the cafe/bar in front a great meet-and-eat locale with a multi-cultural menu from Fred 62’s Fred Eric, matching the eclectic roster of acts being booked.