Otis Taylor: Contraband
Concord Music Group/Telarc
Otis Mark Taylor was born in Chicago, and after his uncle was shot to death the family moved to Denver. Denver wins that one, hands down. I do not know if Mr. Taylor’s’ sensitivities would have been where they ended up if he were in the urban village that Chicago is, but that is not the point of this review, it is just my thought on a fact.
Contraband takes it’s name from an article that appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Preservation Magazine about runaway slaves who escaped to the Union lines at Fort Monroe in Virginia. They were known as “contraband” and lived in camps where the conditions were, at times, worse than those of the plantations they had escaped. Yet to me the title seems to capture the relationship with the music business that Mr. Taylor has endured over the years, seemingly always existing just on the periphery. Thus they are truly a ‘Contra-band’ or a band of square pegs as I recently mentioned to his fiddle player Ms. Anne Harris (http://blues411.com/?p=3112).
‘The Devil’s Gonna Lie’ starts us out with the iconic howls and slightly demonic laugh of Mr. Taylor and screeching sounds from Ron Miles cornet that transforms into a wonderful groove where the entire band allows us to hear what they are capable of. With Chuck Campbell on sacred steel and the Sheryl Renee Choir it builds to a crescendo that lifts us all with the knowledge that, as Mr, Taylor states, “When there is peace the devil wants war. When there is love the devil wants hate”.
What I found very nice, was the inclusion of seven acoustic original tunes with the first being ‘Yell Your Name’. With Mr. Miles once again working his cornet in contra-syncopation, and Mr. Larry Thompson on the drums this track has a fugue feel that could have been written in the 17th century, the late 60′s, or today – a testament to it’s timeless nature and capturing of the spirit of human emotions. Later we are treated to ‘Open These Bars’ with it’s echo-drenched lead guitar work over Mr. Taylor’s’ acoustic guitar work and his daughter Cassie’s bass rounding out the sound.
As for other ‘timeless’ songs Mr. Taylor has included (fortunately for us) ‘The Romans Had Their Way’ a song that he wrote back in the sixties while listening to groups such as the Kinks. On this cut there is a sold beat with Fara Tolno on the Djembe and Jon Paul Johnson putting down some well placed riffs accompanied by the organ work of Mr. Brian Juan. All this as we contemplate whether or not we would still be here today if the Romans had their way in war – THINK.
In a tune that reminds me of the early Mark-Almond band’s eponymous release, ‘Blind Piano Teacher’ is a deep yet simple statement of an relationship. With a wonderful layer of artistically created sound from Ms. Anne Harris on fiddle we get a masterful painting that would stand up in any gallery if sounds could be put on canvas as a painting.
Trying not to go though each track (though I am want to) I will move to the title track ‘Contraband’. A swirling sound scape that one might feel has a touch of Pink Floyd psychedelia but that would be too simple to say and not totally true. It is a wonderful example of what has become known as ‘Trance Blues’. A driving beat with flights of fiddle and edgy electric guitars that all come together with Mr. Taylor’s haunting vocals providing minimal but forceful insistence and then they die away much like the last rays of a vanquished civilization that slavery’s way of life turned out to be. It is interesting historically how the Union forces viewed slaves as captured property or contraband, isn’t it?
They wrap it all up with one of Mr. Taylor’s dark and twisted love songs “I Can See You’re Lying’. This is a straight ahead rock-blues groove again featuring Mr. Jon Paul Johnson on scorching well placed lead work, while the band pumps out driving rhythms. The song perfectly captures the sensibilities of how the brides former lover knows the real deal and confronts her with the fact that she still loves him.
This release is a very nice mixture of different styles and approaches to his written words. It is nice to hear the acoustic selections included with the heavier numbers, yet they are not diminished by the presence of the later only made stronger as we see them hold up their end of the bargain. Mr. Taylor’s band is a perfect assembly of unique musicians who work together for the common good and their achievement is stunning once again. One note I should mention is that Todd Edmunds also plays bass on this release along with Cassie Taylor. Each provides the pivot that the wheels of Mr. Taylor musical machine churn around. Look for it February 13, 2012, wherever intelligent music is sold.
Mr. Taylor’s web site: http://www.otistaylor.com/
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos: courtesy of artist.