Otis Taylor,
Below the Fold
(Telarc, 2005)

Otis Taylor, both traditionalist and creator, sounds, one might say, as Taj Mahal might if he were Bob Dylan, or vice versa -- in other words, a fashioner of modern sounds out of old ones. That's true, but Taylor has his own very specific voice, usually a hard one, attuned to regret, irony, tragedy and injustice. Though blues is clearly the proximate inspiration, this is not juke-joint or dancehall music, and it's not funny in the rich, dark ways blues, especially the downhome variety, can be. (In an interview with NPR some months ago, though, Taylor came across as easygoing and affable, certainly not the impression one would deduce about his personality from his art.) The sound is early 21st century, but the view looks backward, to personal, national and racial history. Taylor himself calls it "trance blues," presumably because of its use of hypnotic rhythms in place of more conventional melodies.

Make no mistake about it, this is smart stuff from a well-read man who thinks deeply and who holds strong points of view. The subjects range from the 1960s civil-rights movement ("Feels Like Lightning") to the 1914 Ludlow, Colorado, Massacre ("Your Children Sleep Good Tonight," subject also, though Taylor's liner notes don't mention it, of Woody Guthrie's "Ludlow Massacre") to his mother and his childhood ("Mama's Got a Friend," a matter-of-fact recounting of her lesbian relationship).

Taylor sets these story-songs in a sonic environment that recalls not only blues but the string bands, black and white, of a century and more ago. Rayna Gellert, the well-regarded young old-time fiddler (and member of the all-female folk band Uncle Earl), plays that instrument here. The arrangements, however, are more reference than re-creation. Though not many African-American artists play banjo and mandolin anymore --Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, a very few others among the rare exceptions -- Taylor does, with fierce power. Listen to the terrific "Boy Plays Mandolin" ("an old man's last memory is the love of his mandolin," the notes tersely explain), with Ron Miles' trumpet snaking through the mandolin rhythm, like a dream at once soothing and troubling.

A rare moment of sweetness -- not, let me stress, sappiness -- comes when Cassie Taylor, his daughter and bass player in his band, steps forward with "Working for the Pullman Company," about a little girl who misses her father as he's off to work on the train in Santa Fe.

This is Taylor's seventh album since the mid-1990s (the first, Blue Eyed Monster, is no longer available) and his second in little more than a year. The man is surely prolific, but then, as one successful recording after another documents, he has a whole lot to say. If what he does may not be blues exactly, it still feels eerily like blues' future, marched toward with one step backward and two forward.

by Jerome Clark
5 November 2005

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