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Published: 2012/03/03
by Brian Robbins

Otis Taylor: Contraband In The Pocket

At one point early on in our conversation, veteran real-thing trance-bluesman Otis Taylor offers the advice that “You can’t judge a book by its cover, you know?”

No kidding.

I mean, consider the cover photo of Taylor’s new Otis Taylor’s Contraband album. The man himself faces the camera, dark wide-brimmed hat shadowing black-framed sunglasses. The only skin visible is Taylor’s nose and a little bit of cheek above his grey-flecked beard. His mouth looks humorless – grim, almost – making it easy to believe that the white fur draped around his body came from something that Taylor himself must’ve taken down with his bare hands, skinned, and consumed. The heavy metal necklace draped around his shoulders and down the front of the fur looks like it weighs 50 lbs. itself.

The photo actually only shows Taylor from mid-hat down to the bottom of his rib cage with nothing else in the photo for perspective, but nonetheless he looks huge – huge – and mean. Mean as hell. One mean-as-hell sumbitch.

In other words, not an easy interview subject.

So it was easy to wonder if I’d dialed the wrong number when a relatively gentle-sounding voice answered “Hello?”

And when Taylor exploded in laughter within the first minute, I couldn’t help but glance at the CD alongside my elbow and think, “I’m talking to this guy?”

We’d established the fact that Otis was in Colorado and I was in Maine when he started to … well … darn near giggle.

“You know, you can’t get there from there,” Otis said, then busted up completely at his version of a well-worn punchline from the bowels of Maine humor.

“Hey,” I answered in mock consternation. “Nobody here in Maine actually says that, you know. I’m convinced that somebody from away made that up years ago.”

“Yeah,” says Otis, suddenly serious. “It’s a … southern conspiracy.”

And then we’re both laughing and it’s all good.

In the blood

I was looking forward to asking Taylor about his oldest daughter, Cassie, a monster bass player and killer vocalist in her own right. As a dad of two musical daughters myself (I have my own bass-playing Cassie, along with her guitar-picking sister Jessica), I’m wondering if Otis remembers the magical moment when his daughter came to him, looking for her musical start.

“Naw – I made her do it,” Otis deadpans. Then, chuckling, he tells me that it was the bass line on Jimi Hendrix’ version of “Hey Joe” that first caught the then 14-year-old Cassie’s ear: “She heard that bass run on ‘Hey Joe’” – he scat sings: “da-da-da-da …” – “and she said, ‘Show me how you play that on bass.’ She learned it in 10 minutes.”

“A natural,” I offer. And Otis allows how Cassie must be, seeing’s how she plays as well as she does despite hating to practice. “She used to cry because I’d make her practice 15 minutes a week. It’s funny: you make a kid play piano and it’s okay; you make them practice the bass and everyone gets upset, you know?

“The hard part was, it really did hurt – Cassie had little blisters on her fingers at first,” he tells me. “Then she said she had tendonitis: ‘I can’t practice, my wrist hurts.’”

Otis recognized his eldest daughter’s natural talent – practice or no practice – and she was on tour with him by the time she was 16. “She’d just go and do the gigs; she’d never practice. Even now, the only time she’ll sit down with the bass is when she’s writing a song.”

Hearing Cassie’s contributions to Contraband (she shares bass duties with Todd Edmunds), it’s scary how locked in she is to the rhythm of her father’s right hand and his stomping foot. I ask Otis if he feels it’s a matter of nature or nurture?

“Your children walk like you and talk like you … so why wouldn’t they play like you?” he says.

Good point, Dad.

Just the facts

Listening to Contraband – or any of Otis Taylor’s music – you realize that there’s no filler or fancy fiddly bits that exist just for the sake of being fancy or fiddly. Everything you hear is integral to that particular song’s vibe, boiled down to the bones of its soul and groove. Solos are taken simply to drive home the emotion of the moment.

Sometimes the arrangements aren’t much more than Taylor’s voice and guitar or banjo accompanied lightly by drums and bass (“2 Or 3 Times” or “Look To The Side”); other times it might be thick layers of sound (including pedal steel, organ, fiddle, or cornet) laid down over a pulsating, primal rhythm, such as on “The Devil’s Gonna Lie” or the dark, hypnotic spiral of “Contraband Blues”. It’s simply a matter of what was needed to get the job done.

The same applies to Otis Taylor’s lyrics: he uses simple words to paint elaborate pictures. Listen to “Blind Piano Teacher”, for instance. In the course of about two dozen words, you feel everything – from the couple’s happiness to the late afternoon ocean breeze stirring the curtains in the windows of the home they share.

“You boiled away every bit of fat and gristle, didn’t you?” I ask Taylor.

“All those things were floating in my head,” he says. “There’s this beautiful blind piano teacher and this old white guy … and everybody’s going, ‘What are they doing ?’ But they were happy, you know? She can’t tell how old he is because she’s blind and he doesn’t care that she’s black. None of it matters – they were happy …”

Taylor offers a description of each song’s story or theme in Contraband ’s liner notes – delivered in classic Otis-ese:

A Southern man tells a Northern woman to come be with him. – “On My Delta Bed”

When love is strong enough, you will cross the ocean. – “Look To The Side”

If the Romans had their way in war, would we still be here today? – “Romans Had Their Way”

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