Friday, February 23, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: OTIS ROARS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 23, 2007


Since his rise in the ’90s, Otis Taylor’s main goal seems to have been to stretch the boundaries of the blues in subtle yet exciting ways. Sometimes Taylor, or at least his PR folks, calls his music “trance blues,” though that tag hardly does his sound justice.

His latest album, Definition of a Circle (to be released Tuesday, Feb. 27), stretches those boundaries even further.

But it’s still very much the blues. And it’s still very much an Otis Taylor album. In fact, this is among his best. Like his best work, there are lots of socially conscious songs dealing with downtrodden and forgotten people. But on at least a couple of numbers here, Taylor sounds as if he wants to have a little fun.

Circle has to be the most richly textured album he’s ever done. There’s a wide variety of instruments — trumpets, mandolin, banjo, keyboards, cello, and, on some songs, even drums. (Until his last album, Below the Fold, Taylor never used drums in his recordings. He doesn’t always need a drummer, but I’m glad he hasn’t taken some purist attitude about the issue.)

And this could be the first time Taylor has actually had guest stars. British bluesman Guitarist Gary Moore plays guitar on some tracks. And Charlie Musselwhite blows his harp on “Looking Over Your Fence.”

Every song here is worthwhile. But here are some standouts:
“They Wore Blue” is about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It starts out slow and mournful, with Taylor moaning “Oh Katrina” as his daughter Cassie, sounding like a ghostly spirit, sings in the background. The chord structure reminds me of Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe.” The last three minutes or so is a tasty little Allmanesque jam featuring Otis’ guitar, Nick Amodeo’s mandolin and Brian Juan’s organ. It’s an unexpected upbeat coda to a what started out as a dirge.

“Something in Your Back Pocket” is raging psychedelia, with Moore on lead guitar, Jack Hadley on steel guitar, and Taylor on slide. The vocals are all spoken word; Taylor plays a bouncer trying to keep a troublemaker out of a nightclub.

“Long Long Life” is a free jazz excursion with Ron Miles on cornet playing against the pianos of Hiromi Uehara and Taylor as well as Juan’s organ.

But Taylor might have saved his best for the album’s first track. “Little Betty” starts out on fire, with a fidgety guitar bouncing off the organ, Moore’s lead guitar answering Taylor’s vocals.

Once again, Taylor has shown that he’s the most innovative force in the blues. Despite all the periodic hand-wringing about the blues being a dying art form, as long as Otis is around, this music’s still a long way from extinction.

Also Recommended

State of Grace
by The Holmes Brothers. I have to admit I was worried when I saw the song list for this new one by The Holmes Brothers (Sherman Holmes and Wendell Holmes, plus Popsy Dixon.
Among a batch of original titles that looked promising were a bunch of rock and country covers — “Bad Moon Rising,” “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” — and a couple of Lyle Lovett songs. And did the free world really need another version of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You”?

I should have known better than to be too concerned. After all, up until now my favorite Holmes Brothers song was a cover tune, Tom Waits’ “Train Song.” And they do a pretty good “Love Train” as well.

But the song that stopped me in my tracks on State of Grace was a cover of a Cheap Trick song.

I always kind of liked “I Want You to Want Me” as a jiffy little radio hit. The Holmes Brothers take it several steps beyond. In fact they take it right to church. They slow it down and turn it inside out. In the hands of The Holmes Brothers it is no longer a catchy ode to teenage lust but a stately appeal for love. The lyrics seem to be the same, but the song now has the aura of a prayer. It’s nothing short of gorgeous.

And the rest of the album is good too, even the covers I mention above. (Roseanne Cash helps out on the Hank Williams song.)

The trio skirts the borders of gospel, soul, blues, and country. Such distinctions don’t seem to make any difference to them. Whatever they’re singing turns out Holmesy.

One of my favorite songs here is a Wendell Holmes original called “Gasoline Drawers.” This is a funky tune with one of the funniest images I’ve heard about in a while. To win his woman’s love, Wendell Holmes “would run through Hell in gasoline drawers.”

One from the throat : Yes, this column is focused mainly on the blues, but if the late Paul Pena taught us anything, there’s a real link between the blues and Tuvan throat singing.

The best-known practitioners of this strange and alluring Central Asian style — Kongar-ool Ondar (who appeared with Pena in the documentary Genghis Blues) and the group Huun-Huur-Tu — are male. The deep voices (which to some sound like Popeye speaking in tongues) might make it appear to be a man’s game.

But that’s not true. Tyva Kyz is an all-female throat singing group from Tuva. These ladies not only sing, but play traditional Tuvan instruments like the homus (a Central Asian jaw harp), a bowed instrument called the byzaanchy, and the igil, a two-stringed fiddle.

Tyva Kyzy is scheduled to perform at Cloud Cliff Bakery (1805 Second St., 983-6254) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28. Tickets are $20. The group gives a throat-singing workshop at the Blue Dragon Coffee House in Albuquerque (1517 Girard Blvd. N.E., 505-268-5159) at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28.

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