Wednesday, March 14, 2012

CD Review: Otis Taylor “Contraband”

Otis Taylor

Otis Taylor's Contraband

During the Civil War, runaway slaves were know as Contraband. Preservation Magazine ran an article about this esoteric fact and it inspired the title of ‘Trance Bluesman’ Otis Taylor’s ninth album since his return to music in 1995. Taylor’s music isn’t your average blues music. Very few of the arrangements are in a 12 bar format. Additionally, the instruments themselves are not often found in blues bands, at least in this fashion; subtle and nearly chamber music cornet (Ron Miles), western swing pedal steel guitar (Chuck Campbell), African/World Music djembe (Fara Tolno), African drums, Hillbilly fiddle (Anne Harris), the Sheryl Renee Choir adding gospel voices, but not in a traditional blues fashion.

There is a more or less traditional rhythm section of bass by Taylor’s daughter Cassie and Todd Edmunds, Jon Paul Johnson on guitar, Brian Juan on organ, and Larry Thompson on the drum kit. Out of those nine albums, Taylor has eleven Blues Music Awards nominations while White African was named 'Best Artist Debut'. Down Beat magazine critics' Poll named Taylor's Truth is Not Fiction as Blues CD of the Year for 2002. He also shared, with Etta James, the 2004 Living Blues readers' poll awarded "Best Blues Entertainer". Down Beat named Taylor's Double V as Blues CD of the Year for 2005. Down Beat named Definition of a Circle as Blues CD of the Year for 2007. They also then named Recapturing the Banjo as "Blues CD of the Year, 2008."

That’s right. banjo on a blues album. Taylor is a talented multi-instrumentalist and banjo was his first instrument. He also plays mandolin, harmonica and guitar.

Otis Taylor “Blind Piano Teacher” From The Album “Contraband”


Otis Taylor's Contraband contains 14 eclectic and compelling original compositions. “The Devil’s Gonna Lie,” a rousing showcase for the entire band, opens the album with Taylor’s trademark howls and a demonic laugh it’s a struttin’ blues that comes close to R&B, the guitar is embellishment, there’s a screeching string instrument then a choir answering the vocal line. On “Yell Your Name,” one of the project’s original seven acoustic tunes, Taylor sings about a man wants his lover to come back. The tune is a solid 4/4 pop style with a ‘happy little’ cornet in the melody.

The insistent rhythm of another acoustic love song, “Look to the Side” spotlights the distinctive sound of Taylor’s specially made electric banjo. Of the foot -tapping “Romans Had Their Way,” he says, “I wrote this song in the ’60s when I was a kid, listening to groups like the Kinks. This is the only old song on the album — all the rest are new.” ‘Romans” is evocative of the organ/guitar tunes in the mid sixties and it’s one of my favorites off of the album.

“Blind Piano Teacher” (above) tells the story of a young black piano teacher who lives with an older white man. It’s sounds Bob Dylan inspired and meditates on the race relations. “Banjo Boogie Blues” is what the title suggests and the lyric begs a womens understanding and compassion. “Contraband Blues,” a song about Civil War slaves who were held by the Union Army as contraband (or captured property), is the powerful centerpiece to the album. It has a “psychedelic ‘60s” feel to it with the hypnotic guitars swirling over the lyric. This song alone is worth the price of the album. “Open These Bars” continues the theme. It sings of the Jim Crow years in the South, when a black man could be lynched for just looking at a white woman. On “Yellow Car, Yellow Dog,” a poor man wishes he had money and could win the love of a woman. Taylor calls this “one of my more poetic songs.”


“Open These Bars” Otis Taylor from the album “Contraband”

“Never Been To Africa” is the simmering tale of a black soldier who’s fought all over the world in World War I, but has never seen Africa. There’s desperation in Taylor’s voice when he sings “Cold sweat running down my leg, I can feel the gas coming across my face, I know I don’t believe in war, but I’ll fight anyway.” “Ten Dollar Bill” is a wonderful Delta Blues tune which makes me think of Muddy Waters.

The musical arrangements cover the gambit from blues to folk, to blue grass and rock n’ roll as well as some typical 2 beat country in places. But no matter the musical influence, they are all delivered in a trance like vein with Taylor’s voice and instrument de jur up front. This one is going to spend some serious time in my personal play list. It was released on Valentines Day and is available in all the usual places.


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Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Just discovered your blog today. Love it! Great review of the Otis Taylor album. Will signpost from my blog