February 12, 2003

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Last Exit
By Derk Richardson


No sleep

WHEN ILLINOIS GOVERNOR George Ryan recently commuted the sentences of inmates on his state's death row to life in prison without parole, he postponed 167 possible contacts for TV spiritualist John Edward. But Ryan didn't make a dent in the concerns of rising blues star Otis Taylor. Death can be delayed, but it can't be denied.

The first four songs on Taylor's second CD, 2001's White African (Northern Blues)which garnered him the Best New Artist title at the 2002 W.C. Handy Awards – address the lynching of a black hobo in the 1930s, the crucifixion of Jesus, a son too proud to cry about his mother's impending demise, and a man who lives in a cardboard box with his dying daughter. Later in the album comes "Saint Martha Blues," which is based on the real-life lynching of Taylor's great-grandfather.

On his third CD, 2002's Respect the Dead (Northern Blues), the 54-year-old Boulder, Colo., blues musician allows the grim reaper's specter to haunt many of the 12 original songs – tales of slavery, freedom riders, romantic betrayal, witchcraft, insomnia, seafaring African American troops in WWII, and accidental fatalities at a Mexican car race. The album ends with the directive "Just live your life before you die, only might be for a little while."

"How many different ways can you tell someone you love 'em or that they broke your heart?" Taylor said about his sometimes bleak themes last week, talking on his cell phone from Washington, D.C., where he had just performed solo at the Kennedy Center. "That kind of limits your songs. But we're all fighting the same demons, the same fears."

Taylor's biography is intriguing. Born in Chicago, where his maternal uncle was shot to death before Taylor was born, he moved with his family to Denver at age six. Drawn to folk music, he spent much of his spare time at the Denver Folklore Center, taking up ukulele, banjo, harmonica, and finally, guitar. As a teenager he sold his collection of Native American art, bought a house in Boulder, and formed a series of blues bands. He migrated to London in 1969, secured an ultimately fruitless contract with Blue Horizon Records, returned to Colorado, where he played in bands with ill-fated heavy metal hero Tommy Bolin, and walked away from the music industry in 1977.

Taylor supported himself and his family with his antique business (specializing in art deco and 20th-century paintings) and played music privately with one of his long-term clients, Kenny Passarelli, who played bass with Joe Walsh, among others. Passarelli continually urged Taylor to go public. He finally did in 1995, as a favor to a friend, Buck Buchanan, who had sponsored the bicycle-racing team Taylor managed in the '80s. When Buchanan opened up a coffeehouse in Boulder, Taylor formed his trio with multi-instrumentalist Passarelli and lead guitarist Eddie Turner and subsequently released four CDs, starting with Blue-Eyed Monster (Shoelace Music, 1996) and When Negroes Walked the Earth (Shoelace Music, 1997). In 2000, Taylor received a fellowship to the Sundance Institute Composer's Laboratory.

Musically, Taylor has come up with a blend that sounds simultaneously old and bracingly fresh. A self-taught instrumentalist, he often employs the droning one-chord forms associated with John Lee Hooker, but with his trio, his sound is filled out to nearly orchestral – or at least cinematic – proportions by his rugged voice, open guitar tunings, dense picking, and use of digital delay; Turner's eerie lead guitar peals; and Passarelli's rich harmonics and atmospheric production effects. The ghosts of Charlie Patton and other long-gone icons can be heard, but on free-form introductions to songs such as "Resurrection Blues," Taylor's acoustic picking echoes that of contemporary West African players including Mali's Ali Farke Toure.

Even more crucially, Taylor uses the oral tradition to make us remember what history sometimes forgets. "I'm not a historian or anything," he said. "I'm a storyteller. I hear some stories somewhere, I tell 'em." Still, history is something we have to wake up to, he seems to be saying. But that comes with a risk. Taylor repeatedly illustrates the ambiguous relationship between sleep, wakefulness, and death. In "Seven Hours of Light," "sleepwalking the blues" feels worse than dying, and in "Hungry People," Taylor laments other people's suffering and moans, "Sometime I'm gonna cry, cry myself, cry myself to sleep."

On White African and Respect the Dead, Taylor does some major communing with spirits, but it's not some sort of musical Crossing Over hokum. As he sings on "Three Stripes on a Cadillac," he knows the "young senorita won't come back again." He just doesn't want us to forget her or the others whose stories he brings not so much to life but rather into our lives.

Otis Taylor performs Feb. 5, 9 p.m., Biscuits and Blues, 401 Mason, S.F. $12.50. (415) 292-2583; and Feb. 9, 8 p.m, Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, 1111 Addison, Berk. $16.50. (510) 548-1761.