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Otis Taylor – Otis Taylor’s Contraband

Telarc 2012

14 tracks – 58.18 minutes

Otis Taylor has received consistent praise and critical acclaim for his CDs in recent years. His albums have received numerous awards and nominations and Otis Taylor himself has been a nominee for best instrumentalist (banjo) at the BMAs. He is also a prolific bluesman, this CD being his tenth release in as many years and his eighth on Telarc. As usual, all the songs are originals and contain a number of songs with historical and/or political messages. Accompanying Otis are his daughter Cassie on bass and vocals, Larry Thompson on drums, Anne Harris on fiddle, Chuck Campbell on pedal steel, Jon Paul Johnson on guitar, Brian Juan on organ, Todd Edmunds on bass, Ron Miles on trumpet and Fara Tolno on djembe. A choir led by Sheryl Renée also features on two tracks. A dedication to the memory of the late Gary Moore (who appeared on several of Otis’ earlier releases, appears on the sleeve.

In general the sound is somber. Otis’ voice is deep and resonant but often mixed quite low so you have to listen extra carefully to appreciate all the lyrics. Otis’ music has been called ‘Trance Blues’ and you can see how it got that name as several of the tracks have a regular, almost hypnotic, rhythm. Cassie’s bass carries the sound on several tracks and Ron Miles’ trumpet is one of the instruments that adds color to the mix on the tracks where he is featured.

Within this general framework there are some tracks that stand out. “Open These Bars”, for example, has a sparse arrangement of just Otis’ acoustic guitar and Cassie’s bass plus Jon Paul Johnson’s electric guitar sounding distant and mournful – entirely appropriate as the song recounts how the false word of a white woman has condemned the narrator to being lynched for being over-familiar, a far too common occurrence in the Jim Crow years in the South. Title song “Contraband Blues” reveals that during the Civil War some slaves who escaped to the North were held as ‘contraband’ by the Union Army, just as if they were property – so much for the illusion that the Union was fighting against slavery! For this song the larger band provides a more up tempo beat with Anne Harris’ fiddle sounding ominous in the background and the djembe providing additional drama as Otis implores his people to “wake up”. Opening track “The Devil’s Gonna Lie” proposes that when there is peace the devil will lie to cause war as the Devil wants hatred to prevail. Strong percussion, the choir and Ron Miles’ trumpet add to the fullness of the sound. “Never Been To Africa” recounts the story of a black soldier in the First World War trenches realizing that he is fighting in that terrible European war despite the fact that he has never had the opportunity to discover his roots in Africa.

There is not a lot of lightness in this album, most songs being either poignant (“Blind Piano Teacher”) or dark and serious such as the songs cited above. One track that has the potential for humor is “2 or 3 Times” a song about a man bragging about his lovemaking abilities! However, it is one of the sparse arrangements and proceeds at a funereal pace. Otis demonstrates his banjo picking skills on several tracks, with “Lay On My Delta Bed” being a very sprightly tune.

For those who have enjoyed Otis Taylor’s previous CDs this will be another winner and may well garner more nominations for awards.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK.  He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music and is currently planning a visit to the Tampa Bay Blues Festival.

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