Respect the Dead
The folks at Canada’s NorthernBlues Music have a knack for finding artists who have sunk into obscurity and putting the polish back on their careers. After more than a dozen years playing his unique brand of the blues, in 1977 Otis Taylor retired from the music business. In 1995, he was persuaded to return to the stage and enjoyed a degree of success. After he signed with NorthernBlues Music in 2001, Taylor began to receive accolades on many fronts, including numerous W. C. Handy nominations and awards, a fellowship to the Sundance Institute Music Composers Laboratory, and creation of the “Otis Taylor special edition electric banjocaster” by the Blue Star Guitar company. Not bad.
The music of Otis Taylor stands apart from what a lot of blues fans might consider to be blues music. Many blues fans tend to have a sort of tunnel-vision, listening only to very traditional acoustic blues in the tradition of Big Bill Broonzy or Leadbelly or to the hard-rocking electric blues of artists like B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy. These fans might not even recognize some of these songs as The Blues. More open minded listeners will see in this set something very special, an evolution of The Blues that carries the music of past into the future.
This music may be of the city, but the sound leans heavily toward the folk side of things. As I listen to the songs, I’m reminded of a strange brew of artists that includes Richie Havens, Leonard Cohen, Tony Joe White, and even vocal groups such as The Spinners. These are story songs, rich with history and imagery, sometimes sung but sometimes simply spoken over the music. Excellent as the music may be, in these songs the words are the driving force, delivering characters and events that grab and hold our attention.
The stories here are powerful and evocative, with a definite political edge. Taylor’s delivery is powerful and dramatic, his writing tight yet with the relaxed flow of the oral tradition. This is a perfect combination of the written and the spoken or sung word.
Behind the words flows equally dramatic music, performed with precision by Taylor along with Kenny Passarelli, and Eddie Turner. Cassie Taylor adds class to the act with her powerful backup vocals that fall somewhere between the dramatic vocals heard behind Meat Loaf and Leonard Cohen.
Of all the songs on this release, “Just Live Your Life” comes as a real surprise. I’ve begun to think that every release by a Canadian artist must include at least one song with a Leonard Cohen sound. Although Otis Taylor is an American, the final track in this set has that same obligatory Cohen feel. It’s more than the jumpy near-reggae rhythm, the dark lyrics, and the quirky instrumental mix. At the beginning of the song, Taylor drops his voice into a deep whisper that actually sounds like Cohen. Cassie Taylor’s vocals slip in behind the lead with the sort of attack to be heard in many of Cohen’s songs. Most of all, the song tells a tale that could have been ripped straight out of the Cohen songbook.
Although Taylor is originally from the urban north of the United States and had spent time in England as well, most of the songs here have a very southern and rural feel. Even when complex and studio-mixed, the instrumentals have a very back-porch ambience which at times turns swampy. The vocals carry a sense of the old time storyteller, carrying the old tales from village to village, farm to farm, person to person. The result is that even the darkest stories have a comfortable, familiar feel to them.
Although every song on Respect the Dead was written by Otis Taylor, the entire set respects the tradition from which the songs come. Blues fans, folkies, anyone who loves great music and great stories powerfully told should look up Otis Taylor. It will be well worth the effort.
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