VISITING THE TAJ
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, breathless with anticipation, nails bitten to the quick…my meeting with Taj Mahal at the Rochester Jazz Festival last weekend.
It was great, even tho’ we didn’t get to play together. We tried, but his post-show obligations to see fans made it impossible. But we still managed to chill for awhile, talk about old times at the Ash Grove, the famous LA folk & roots-music club where so many of us met and started our careers. I’m talking about Taj, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Clarence and Roland White, Dave Lindley, Richard Green and a gang of others maybe not so famous, but contributors to the ‘Sixties socio-music movement nonetheless.
But now, Taj. He didn’t look much like the Taj I knew 40-plus years ago, but which of us old ‘60’s counter-culture creatures does? He’s put on a lot of weight since his start-up days, when he was tall and rake-thing, muscular and very sexy.
He’d warned me by email to be ready to see a change. “I’m a different man,” he wrote, “but I’m still humorous.” And he was. When I told him he’d won the weight contest (for most) but I’d probably won the hair contest (for least) he was as quick on the draw as always.
“Hold on, there, Sparky,” he cautioned, taking off his white Panama and running his hand over his glistening head. “I win that one, too. And don’t forget, Boy, shaved is the new hairy. So I win the hipness contest (for most), too.”
I reminded him of a soaring moment he’d had one day in 1965 or ’66, in the slum of a dressing room at the Ash Grove, where a bunch of us would hang out between the folk music classes we taught.
A short, chunky, waspishly funny then-mandolinist (now a steel player) named Herb Steiner had a running verbal joust with Taj about whether Negroes really were inferior to whites, as many “real” Bluegrass players thought. It had always been tongue-in-cheek, Cowboy Herb ostensibly parodying the good ol’ boys as he pretended to be a real redneck Bluegrass musician, when he was actually a spoiled, middle-class kid from Fairfax, LA’s Jewish section.
Anyway, in the middle of one of these exchanges, in a room full of people, Cowboy Herb blurted out, deadpan, “Taj, have you ever smelled a Negro’s armpits?”
The room went silent. Everybody knew this time Herb had gone too far, and the question hung in air like a bad fart.
Taj was sitting right across from Herb and was obviously offended, as were all of us. Nobody would have blamed him if he’d slapped Herb across the face; it was that kind of insult. Taj sat there for a long moment and then started to laugh himself, breaking the tension completely. You could almost hear shoulders relax and lungs deflate with relief.
Then, still a little off-balance but obviously recovering quickly, Taj said, “Herb, as long as you’re going around smelling peoples’ armpits, why don’t you also measure some white guys’ cocks? Be sure to bring a micrometer.” Maybe not in those words, but something like that.
Now the post-incident murmurs of relief changed to whooping catcalls and gotchas as balance amongst the faculty members of the Ash Grove School of Traditional Music was restored.
We talked about Ed Pearl, the owner of, and impresario at, the Ash Grove and the big reunion at UCLA last summer I missed out on, one of the small but painful no-shows I deeply regret.
We reminisced about going to Cantor’s, the big delicatessen a few blocks away from the Club and Taj, a New Yorker, ordering matzoh-ball soup and the waitress saying, “Gee, you don’t look Jewish.” Remember, this was the mid-‘60’s and racial differences were seldom alluded to in public.
And we talked about music. And talked and talked.
The opening act of that evening was the Susan Tedeschi Band, a competent but not exceptional group whose main features were Susan Tedeschi, a terrific singer and good female guitarist (sorry, ladies, but it’s unusual to see a good rock musician without a penis) and deafening sound.
It was generally agreed by everyone in the green room, my wife, Marion, close friends Robin and Mike Weintraub and Taj’s sister, Connie, that the band had played too loud and too long, the latter being the main reason Taj wasn’t reviewed in the next day’s paper; the music critic just couldn’t stay long enough to hear his set and still make his deadline. And, I selfishly submit, it was the main reason Taj and I didn’t have time to jam a little. Bummer.
However, the really important reviews of Taj’s set, those from me and my wife and friends, are now in, and they’re unanimous: he was terrific.
Terrific, partly because his band was a trio comprised of him, a bass player and a drummer (whose names, unacceptably, I don’t have at the moment). And the transparency and discreteness of their sound stood in stark and welcome contrast to the Tedeschi Band’s wall of over-modulation.
Terrific because the two back-up guys played no more and no less than they were supposed to, with no vocal harmonies or
stage-crafty gymnastics. The band’s powerful, sleek sound, absent redundant second guitarists and keyboard players, did nothing but set off the main reason you come to see Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal.
At this point in his career Taj sounds, looks and performs like one of the great bluesmen of the last generation, the ones Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix learned from: the Kings (BB, Alfred and Freddie), Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and yes, Robert Johnson. Taj may well be on his way to legend status.
Coming on stage, unceremoniously ducking his head under the guitar strap, turning up his amp, not looking at his sidemen, was just as I remember Albert King doing it one night in the summer of ’68, when my band (Evergreen Blueshoes) opened for him at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip.
Taj’s very first notes were just what any of the Kings’ would have been: few, clear and biting, their choice pitch-perfect for the blues. He sounded just like some bad-ass dude with a hollow-body Gibson and a Fender amp from Clarksdale, Miss., by way of Chess Records in Chicago, who’s done this a thousand times before but still comes to life when he goes on stage.
It’s the formula that works for BB and all the other bluesmen who got their chops and taste in roadhouses, churches and dance-bands. For some reason, it always sounds like what they play is the truth. Taj sounds like that, like he’s playing the truth.
Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.