|Otis Taylor redefines the word 'original', and the 52-year-old musician who resides
in Boulder, Colorado, consistently blurs the line between convention and musical eclecticism. He is to blues what
Edward Munch is to paintings; socio-psychological expressionism, bombastic, raw and brilliant.
Taylor's deep, ethereal acoustic blues carries the hell-fire lament and anguished expressiveness of the old blues from the Deep South - same subject matter, feeling and instrumentation. His songs cry out about lynching, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, false accusations and violence, as well as universal themes like hunger, love, despair and a dying child without money for medical care.
Taylor was one of the first artists signed by NorthernBlues, the promising new Toronto blues label. His first album for the label is titled White African, a reference to his African-American/Caucasian genealogy.
The concept of "race" is a provocative element underlying Taylor's artistic statement, whether it's through confronting racism or what Nelson Mandela has referred to as "racialism": the geo-politics of race. Taylor delves head-on into the cores of this blues thematic of pain, suffering and hardship with a fury fueled by anger and outrage. He exposes his soul and unleashes mournful wails and haunting death cries that could make Son House's "Death Letter Blues" sound comparatively upbeat.
So heavy, dark and intense is White African, it will surely startle the weak-hearted. But Taylor's moan nonetheless succeeds to entertain, as he is able to deliver redemption and the catharsis that has always been at the heart of the universal appeal of the blues. And, graciously, this rough-riding Colorado musician "sure don't cover no Robert Johnson songs."
Part of what intrigues about this artist is that, like many of the early blues musicians, he started out playing pre-blues folk music. Taylor was first a banjo picker, a daring act of individualism for a young black musician at the time. Later Taylor picked up the harmonica, and then the guitar, which he plays with the same fiery, untamed picking and strumming style as a banjo.
Taylor's music seems influenced by the pre-bluegrass Appalachian banjo sound of Doc Boggs and Rosco Holcomb. Not so surprising, because they, in turn, staked their roots in the music of the black 19th Century banjo songsters and minstrels whose music traces straight back to West Africa.
On top of that, Taylor's approach is even reminiscent of Malian string music. His guitar and banjo plucking sometimes sound like the great Malian guitarists Ali Farka Toure and Babcour Traora. Always a bluesman to the core, Taylor strikes Lightnin Hopkins' hypnotic, trance-like groove, with an emotive, slow and deliberate tone and enough feeling to burden a lifetime of pain.
Taylor is like no other. On White African he is joined by long-time friend, producer, arranger and collaborator Kenny Passarelli on bass, Eddie Tuner on lead guitar, and teenage daughter Cassie Taylor on back-up vocals. White African is one wickedly exciting album, and it will surely rattle your britches.
"White African is one wickedly exciting album, and it will surely rattle your britches."