Friday, September 30, 2005


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 30, 2005

Otis Taylor has to be the most eccentric blues stylist working today. His new album Below the Fold, is a sonic wonder and — par for the course for Taylor — an intense listen.

You know you’re going to be in for a ride in the opening stains of the first song, “Feel Like Lightning.” A plunking banjo is joined by a screaming guitar, a crazed fiddle drums and bass, as Otis shouts “Oh Yeah!” It’s a joyful one-chord acoustic cacophony -- and there’s a cello in there too.

And to illustrate Taylor’s bizarre sense of arrangements, the song “Boy Plays Mandolin” indeed features Taylor picking that instrument. But when he sings, “When I was a boy, I played, I played the mandolin …” he’s answered by Ron Miles’ cool trumpet.

And while Greg Anton’s martial drumming on “Right Side of Heaven” suggests an Otha Turner-like fife and drum number, there’s no fife to be found. Just a dangerous showdown between Miles’ trumpet and Taylor’s harmonica.

Speaking of drums, this is the first time Taylor has employed them since reviving his music career in the late ‘90s. Anton only appears on about half the songs on Below the Fold, but the addition is welcome. Drums certainly don’t make this music sound conventional.

Taylor’s songs are portraits drawn from historical injustices -- often little-known stories -- and shadowy corners of the singer’s personal history.

“Your Children Sleep Good Tonight” is about the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in which Colorado National Guard troops shot at and set fire to a tent community of striking miners, killing 11 children northwest of Trinidad. None of the Guard members were ever prosecuted. “Hey hey, Mr. Rockefeller, I know your children sleeps good tonight,” Taylor taunts. (The Rockefeller Family controlled Colorado Fuel & Iron, the major coal operator in the region.)

“Government Lied” tells the story of German soldiers in World War II shooting American soldiers. According to Taylor’s liner notes, “At the end of the war, the responsible Germans were hanged for killing the white soldiers, but the U.S. government said that the black soldiers were missing to they wouldn’t have to account for them.”

Taylor has to write the darkest “Mama” songs in all of popular music. His last record had a ditty called “Mama’s Selling Heroin.” On this CD there’s “Mama’s Got a Friend,” an autobiographical story of a boy with two mommies. He never says exactly how he feels about the situation, but the tension of music -- the repeated minor-key acoustic guitar riff, droning cello, edgy fiddle, sinister trumpet -- paints the emotional landscape as “Every time I go to school, people ask me about my sister,” Taylor moans.

Below the Fold is a powerful testament to Taylor’s strange vision of the blues. It’s an album that somehow manages to be jolting as well as hypnotic.

Also Recommended:

*Motivational Speaker by Alvin Youngblood Hart. If Otis Taylor is blues’ great eccentric, Hart is the great eclectic.

His musical interests cover a wide field of musical styles that touch on the blues. Following his 2002 effort Down in the Alley — which was basically an acoustic collection of songs by ascended masters like Charlie Patton. Skip James and Sleepy John Estes — on his latest CD the gruff-voiced Hart returns to his high-voltage electric — and far more varied — sound.

There’s a couple of tunes here that are juiced-up, fiery versions of tunes Hart had previously recorded in acoustic versions -- “Big Mama’s Door” (subtitled “Might Return” in this version) and “How Long Before I Change My Clothes.” Blues purists probably prefer the original versions, but I bet the electric versions here would make Howlin’ Wolf smile.

On several cuts on Motivational Speaker, Hart tips his hat to the psychedelic blues of Cream and Jimi Hendrix.

There’s “Stomp Dance,” which starts out with what sounds like tribal drums, soon joined by a fuzzy bass before building up to a “Crosstown Traffic” frenzy and “Shoot Me a Grin,” which sounds like an invocation to prehistoric guitar gods.

“The Worm,” (written by Paul Rodgers in his days with Free), is slow and heavy with a hint of wah-wah in the guitar. Meanwhile the six-minute “Shootout on I-55” is a frantic jam.

Hart tries straight-ahead soul -- complete with a rag-tag horn section and a female backup singer (Susan Marshall) -- with his cover of Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”

And he’s no stranger to country music. One of the greatest delights on his 1998 album Territory was a lap steel-heavy tune called “Tallacatcha,” which, though written by Hart himself, sounded like a lost treasure from the Hank Williams song book.

On Motivational Speaker Hart goes hardcore honky tonk on a Johnny Paycheck stomper called “The Meanest Jukebox in Town,” then shows his latent cosmic cowboy tendencies on a Haight Ashbury-era Doug Sahm song, “Lawd I’m Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City.” (Hart has included this one in his live repertoire for years.)

But perhaps the strongest number here is a traditional tune called “In My Time of Dying.” Hart plays it slow with dreamy guitars -- including an inspiring slide played by Audley Freed.

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