|Otis Taylor lives in a scary world. Shamans and witches are all around, and countless
slaves who died for somebody else's profit or pleasure have stories that demand to be heard.
Others escape, but their stories are almost never happy: They're hounded, they're shot down. Or they shoot someone down. The stories are hard - hard to understand sometimes, too often just plain hard to hear.
It's all wrapped up in the music you know you've heard before somewhere, not on any record. One the one hand, of course, it's the music of an African story circle, propelled by a slashing, insistent banjo riff, a riff that would surely terrify the good folks at the Grand Ole Opry. Or hammering guitar runs, surrounded by keyboards and another guitar from outer space. And, sometimes, the voice of a girl, 14-year-old Cassie Taylor sounding more haunted and haunting than any 14-year-old-girl should ever sound.
There's a never-ending argument about what constitutes the blues. There are exhausting angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussions on format and bar counrs and chord progressions.
But blues should also be about content, experience, remembering the past. It's an area that too many performers let go of, but Otis Taylor's both a history addict and social observer and he's way more interested in relating the stories of a people than he is in bad-men women tunes.
Taylor's been around a long time, although he kind of sprang unannounced last year with the giant White African album, which garnered him four prestigious W.C. Handy award nominations, including album of the year.
The thing is, Respect the Dead, is massive, a much bigger album than White African, although there's no song quite as commercial as the eerie, song-of-the year nominee, My Soul's in Louisiana.
Instead, you've got songs like Hands on Your Stomach, with Taylor ranting like a Castenada devotee on a stomachful of peyote trying to summon dead spirits while Eddie Turner's guitar weeps and moans and Kenny Passarelli's bass thumps ominously.
Or the one-man, one-harp moan of Baby So. The tormented Black Wotch, or 32nd Time, his tribute to Freedom Riders around the world with its chorus: "Selma, Little Rock, Birmingham, Wounded Knee, Kent State, Tiananmen Square"
At their core, the songs are nowhere near fancy. It's hard poetry, lyrics hardly ever rhyme - not even the basic blues rhymes. The music's more insistent and demanding than it'll ever be pretty.
People have compared Taylor to John Lee Hooker that way, and that works in that the music seems to come out of the ground and there are very few people who could ever deliver the songs the way that Taylor does....
...leads to the more important conclusion here: Taylor is driving this train and the only signposts are going to be the ones he leaves behind. Sure, sometimes the explorer zigs when maybe he should have zagged but you have to trust him.
And Taylor hasn't let us down yet.
"...there are very few people who could
ever deliver the songs the way that Taylor does....Taylor is driving this train
and the only signposts are going to be the ones he leaves behind. "