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Otis Taylor: Trance Blues Certified (with a Festival to Prove It)

Otis Taylor didn’t intend to make an album that sounds as if it was recorded immediately after scouring recent headlines but that’s the accidental result of Fantasizing About Being Black.

“I’ve taken all of my thoughts about the history of racial injustice and created a musical interpretation for modern times,” he said in regards to his 15th album. “When I started recording in 2015, I had no idea the topics would become even more relevant.”

But, he points out that in spite of the subjects and themes his music isn’t meant to go up against the system. “I’m not telling you what to think. I’m just reporting history. I’m not a protest singer or social commentator. That’s a difference. My things are just stories. I’m a storyteller in the Black tradition.”

The 11 songs connect situations from the past that connect to the present. On “Banjo Bam Bam” Taylor focuses on a slave in shackles. “D to E Blues” evokes the desire for freedom. “Roll Down the Hill” rallies for self-preservation when you’ve hit rock bottom. “Jump to Mexico” discusses the perils of an interracial couple. “Jump Jelly Belly” details black soldiers in World War II who had the terrifying responsibility of transferring cargo between ships on the English Channel.

Aiding him in this endeavor are his band members – violinist Anne Harris, drummer Larry Thompson and bassist Todd Edmunds – along with guests Jerry Douglas (koa lap guitar), Brandon Neiderauer (guitar) and Ron Miles (cornet).

Once again, Taylor draws on African-American culture musically by using banjo and fiddle but uses them in an innovative manner that’s become a genre all his own. His descriptive term of Trance Blues takes the seeds of Africa and the roots from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago and creates a hypnotic wave of sound that throbs and pulses, intensifies the drama within the songs and releases that tension, occasionally, when the arrangement loosens its grip on the listener.

Taylor will showcase all of this at his Trance Blues Festival which will take place this Saturday, November 11 at eTown Hall in Downtown Boulder. Colorado

JPG: The idea behind the album, did it coalesce while writing it or after you recorded a few songs?

OT: I recorded some new songs but I used old songs. I didn’t have enough new songs for the whole concept. I knew I wouldn’t because I can’t do a horrible song. It has to be okay or great. On the album, sometimes, the okay ones set up the great ones.

When I was working this record, the Trump thing didn’t exist. He wasn’t even running. We started the record about a year-and-a-half out. Then, I was tuning into the whole Ferguson [Missouri, Black Lives Matter] all that stuff where the energy was really bad but I didn’t know the Trump thing was going to happen. I did not predict that. (slight laugh)

JPG: The album seems very today with current events and what you focused on here.

OT: I always do a few songs about black issues on my album but I wanted to do something different. I needed something totally different. Did you hear the Hey Joe Opus [Red Meat] album?

JPG: Yes.

OT: So, I needed something different. You’ve got to be the same but different. It’s a puzzle. It gets harder as you have more albums.

JPG: I understand the “harder” side of it because there are some artists who find something meaningful late in their careers and others who release stuff and you wish that they didn’t.

OT: Yes. Everybody goes, “When are you going to do a live album?” I say, “They can do it when I’m dead.” As long as I can write a song…right now in the last eight months I’ve come up with one nice song. I’m slowing down and I like it.

JPG: Could it be your standards are so much higher…?

OT: I don’t know. I don’t know. Sometimes, I wonder how I even come up with a song I like. “How did I come up with this idea? How did I come up with this tune?” Some days I’m amazed (slight laugh) but I do.

JPG: I remember Lou Reed described songwriting being like having a radio station playing in his head and he just needed to pay attention.

OT: I do subconsciously but it’s just amazing that I can come up with something I wrote and not something somebody else wrote.

JPG: Back to the idea of having standards; you do have your own style and it’s a matter of creating something that doesn’t sound like other things.

OT: It’s weird how I come up with it. It’s a curse. It’s not a good thing. If I just did lyrics, it comes easy. Sometimes, I just need a tune that doesn’t sound like somebody else did it. I write lyrics so strangely that I usually don’t overlap anybody’s style.

JPG: In the CD booklet where you discuss each sondo you do that because you don’t want anyone to misinterpret?

OT: Well…just because I mumble, because I don’t feel like writing the lyrics because I feel like changing the lyrics whenever I want onstage. I’m not locked into something where some guy’ll be, “Dude, you didn’t do the record.” Could be laziness. (laughs)

JPG: This is your 15th album since you’re returned to music 22 years ago.

OT: I kept on thinking it was 18 years ago but I keep losing a sense of time. Since 1995, I go, “Whoa!” I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for that long again.

JPG: Is it just the need to express yourself that drives you?

OT: Well, performing’s very difficult because you’re the lead guy and band members come and go and you have to concentrate. Sometimes, I have fun but, basically, I have to really be paying attention because we don’t practice. We don’t rehearse. We just play. If you can’t play my shit then you don’t need to be with me because it ain’t complicated. Most of the songs don’t even have chord changes.

In the recording studio I feel the best because I can control the product where it’s hard to control it live. An amp breaks. You have to pay attention to the audience and make sure you’re pulling them in. Be a performer. Doing all that at the same time. It’s a little difficult for me as you get older — I’m always with a poker face, mean-looking guy — but I don’t show it but it is. When I get really tired onstage I start saying weird shit. The band just knows when I’m exhausted. Once I was in Paris. We flew in from Portugal and I was exhausted and had to play that day. I just laid on the floor for two minutes and people thought it was part of the show. (laughs) I was just wasted. I couldn’t stand anymore.

JPG: At least the band was used to it.

OT: It looked good. It was like a Betty LaVette move but it wasn’t because I was performing the move. It was because I had to lay down for a second.

JPG: On a song like “Roll Down the Hill,” anyone can attach themselves to it because of the idea behind it. You may roll down that hill but you’re going to pick yourself up and climb back up again. That’s a great tune to have near the end of the album.

OT: I wrote that in a friend’s office, Harry Tuft at the [Denver] Folklore Center. We’re just talking about things and I said, “Harry, you just got to roll down the hill ‘til you get to the bottom.” I was like, “Oh shit! That’s a song!” (slight laugh) I made him email it to me so I didn’t forget it. Conversations can become songs.

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