Saturday, March 9, 2013

Music Reviews-Otis Taylor, Willie King

Otis Taylor
I have written before about some bluesmen who eschew the standard stereotype of a drunk toothless man moaning about how his baby did him wrong. Otis Taylor is one such musician who doesn't fit that frame. He's not from Mississippi. He's from Colorado. In fact, in many ways his music doesn't fit the standard post-Hendrix or post-SRV framework. It's simultaneously modern while at the same time reaching back to very old traditional African-American blues, pre-blues and even African musical influences. Ironically although his music has had some commercial success, often appearing on film soundtracks, it sounds nothing at all like the more commercially successful blues or blues-rock music  with which you may be more familiar.

Although Taylor has written his share of tunes about personal relationships that didn't quite work out, even there his songs generally aren't party tunes or music just to shake your tailfeather to. No his songs on that subject matter are about men and women (or same sex relationships) that couldn't get together because the man was lynched or the woman died of a disease or is a ghost or something far different from most of the lyrics you might think of as blues. In fact even calling him a blues artist is limiting and maybe even insulting. He's like Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, in that blues may inform much of what he does but he's not limited by blues. He has such an individual sound that he's immediately recognizable. Like Thompson, he's very good at writing dark depressing songs though he's keen to point out that he's a pretty positive guy. His song "Rosa Rosa", dedicated to Rosa Parks is something truly sublime. One of his relatives was lynched and he wrote songs about that. Much of his music is explicitly or implicitly about the violence and harm that humans inflict on each other.

Born in 1948, in his youth Taylor did play in more of a commercially recognizable blues-rock sound and rock style, working with Deep Purple and Cream producers and guitarists before getting disgusted with the music industry and dropping out to do different things, including but not limited to being an antique dealer and bicyclist coach. He returned to music relatively late in life.

Father and Daughter
Other musicians I can compare him to would be people like John Lee Hooker, Ali Farka Toure, Miles Davis or Lightning Hopkins, who didn't necessarily play standard forms of blues, played around with timing and regularly ignored/avoided/rejected chord changes. In much of the earliest music that I've heard from Taylor he wasn't using a drummer. Actually I found I didn't miss it all that much. After all, rhythm is everyone's responsibility. See if you can find his release Reclaiming the Banjo in which he plays and arranges banjo music in a style quite different from the Euro-American bluegrass norms with which the instrument is most closely associated. As Taylor has pointed out in many different interviews, the banjo was originally a West African instrument. He says that his banjo style hearkens back to African roots and not Scottish or Irish ones. But of course he seems to be pretty familiar with Appalachian traditional songs, as you can tell from his version of the murder ballad "Pretty Polly". His music can put you into a trance not just because of the performance style rooted in African-American call and response riffs and vocalisms but because much of his work is drenched in reverb, delay and echo. It's like blues dub. Sound levels change and songs push and pull like a 59' Lincoln with a dying transmission.

Although originally he used another electric guitarist (Eddie Turner)to be his primary soloist, Taylor also calls upon violinists or cellists to perform solos, something extremely rare in modern blues, rock or pop music. And as a multi-instrumentalist, Taylor himself can provide some fascinating solos on harmonica, banjo, electric or acoustic guitar, and mandolin. Lately, he's been using drums. My favorite Otis Taylor song is "My Soul's in Louisiana". Taylor's daughter, Cassie, can often be found playing bass on some of his later releases. If you think you know all there is to know about blues or are just looking for new music you should check out his work. As Taylor has pointed out in interviews, in some respects he's only called a bluesman because he's black. You could just as accurately call him a folk or roots musician. He's still going strong.

My Soul's in Louisiana  Ten Million Slaves (Live with Chuck Campbell) 
 Bowlegged Charlie
Hey Joe(Live) Young Girl Down The Street  Rosa Rosa  Nobody Knows My Name
Resurrection Blues     Black Witch   Little Willie  Mama's Selling Heroin Pretty Polly

Willie King
Willie King was another man, who like Otis Taylor was redefining what blues sounded like. Whereas Taylor was doing this both sonically and lyrically and doing things far beyond the blues framework, King's music was much more sonically recognizable in the traditional blues sense. He was from Mississippi and spent much of his life in Alabama. He was also a former sharecropper and bootlegger. He knew hard times personally.
But lyrically King's music was far more explicit about racism and the struggles of black people than most blues was. This was because King was both a civil rights activist and amateur musicologist as well as a musician. His theory, based on both his own life struggles and talks with older musicians was that much of the older blues music, which talked about struggles between men and women, was actually coded resistance to the white racism of the time. Someone talking about going upside his woman's or her man's head would have been ignored while someone talking about mistreatment by white racists or capitalists would have come to the attention of the authorities, as happened to bluesman J.B. Lenoir, when he wrote politically explicit songs about Eisenhower, Alabama and Vietnam. Generally speaking it's always been much more more prudent for both your career and your income to write songs about women and sex than about politics and race.

But Willie King thought that the time had come to drop what he saw as unnecessary subterfuge and speak directly about the struggles of the black and poor against the rich and the racist. He also did a few relationship songs of course but a bit less than you might think. He named his band The Liberators just so you could not miss the points he was trying to make. To paraphrase that old Fat Albert line you could listen and dance to Willie King's music and if you weren't careful you just might learn something. And, whether the lyrics were political or not almost all of King's music was danceable. So if you're looking for long turgid solos as is common in much modern "blues" you won't find those here. His solos are generally precise and quickly get to the point before King drops back into the all important groove.

In my opinion King's best all around release was Freedom Creek. Virtually all of his best work can be found there. It's a live album which sees King calling upon such influences as Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed and most obviously James Brown with James Brown's "Payback" modified into "Pickens County Payback" and a second singer on most songs responding to King's guttural gutbucket singing style. The guitar tone is loud but not in a bad way. It's right on the edge of breakup but is nowhere near as distorted as what's found in most rock music. It's got a lot of clarity. He's a preacher, a shaman, a prophet and a prosecuting attorney. Imagine a gruffer Bob Marley. King just didn't sing about fighting power and helping people. He practiced what he preached. He created and helped run a Rural Members Association which was both a social welfare agency and custodian of African American culture. It did such things as provide legal assistance and transportation for needy people as well as running classes in music, quilting, woodworking and plenty of other traditions. He also started the Freedom Creek blues festival. He's passed on but has left an impressive body of work.

Second Coming  Uncle Tom  Stand up and Speak The Truth  Like it Like That Spoonful(Live)
Pickens Country Payback  Terrorized  I am The Blues  Ride Sally Ride (Live)
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