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Otis Taylor - Recapturing the Banjo

Telarc Blues Records # CD83667

By James “Skyy Dobro” Walker
14 songs; 52:48 minutes; Suggested

Genre: Roots Music; Banjo Music

Here is a CD that is not your typical “blues” album. This recording is made to, first, wrap your brain around. Accordingly, you come to realize that this is the “roots” of Roots Music. Secondly, stick into your eye a vision of history, a photo of “four big black guys with banjos in their hands.” [quote from Otis Taylor interview in Living Blues magazine Issue #194]. Thirdly, open your ears to banjo music that is not bluegrass. Finally, learn Taylor’s mission and simple message here, “the banjo came from Africa.” According to Otis Taylor, since the blues came from African-Americans, and the banjo came from Africa, then the “blues came from the banjo. Open tuning, Piedmont picking style, the whole package came from the banjo: the melody and rhythm at the same time, the whole Delta thing.” [LB #194]

Don’t let all that scare you off, however. The CD is entertaining and enlightening at the same time. It is not overly academic, nor is it a pushy history lesson in the process of being significant. For proof, check out track 7, “Hey Joe.” Here is a psychedelic cover of Billy Roberts’ song popularized by Jimi Hendrix. Taylor plays electric guitar ala Hendrix, daughter Cassie is the bassist, guest Alvin Youngblood Hart adds lap steel, guest Guy Davis plays harmonica, and Hart additionally picks a banjo as rhythm, not lead. Groovy? Yeah, man, it really is a trip (and a trip back to the late 60s)!

Demonstrating the album’s eclecticism, the very next song is as down home as a “raccoon in a [per]simmon tree.” “Little Liza Jane” with Guy Davis using the clawhammer picking style and Taylor on mandolin is as close to bluegrass as any song gets.

Other guests bring more musical turns. Keb’ Mo’ (Kevin Moore) uses finger picks and sings lead on his own “The Way It Goes” and on Taylor’s “Live Your Life.” In the latter, Ron Miles ethereal coronet soars beautifully above the inspiring “live your dreams” message while Cassie Taylor adds backup vocals. The next turn is the classic Gus Cannon tune “Walk Right In” with Corey Harris on vocals and banjo plus Don Vappie on banjo recapturing the jug band feel.

Anyone listen to music while walking (maybe running?) for your life and longevity? Play the opening track, and that marching rhythm will make your feet get the rest of you into great shape! This banjo-brigade opener, “Ran So Hard the Sun Went Down,” a Taylor original, features Hart, Harris, Vappie, Taylor himself (using no picks), and Cassie Taylor on bass and backup vocals. The music is completely exhilarating; the message is not. Listen to the story of the unfortunate black protagonist in the 1930s, and you will learn why he is running for his life.

For his ninth album, Otis Taylor, who has always featured the banjo on his various recordings,  presents, for your consideration, the banjo in a more transparent historical light. With plenty of lap steel and electric guitar included, Taylor continues his trademark of combining the past and the present in a powerful statement that informs as it keeps your feet dancing.  CLICK HERE to listen to sample and purchase this CD now

James “Skyy Dobro” Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ and Blues Blast contributor. His weekly radio show “Friends of the Blues” can be heard each Thursday from 4:30 – 6:00pm on WKCC 91.1 FM in Kankakee, IL

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