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Published: 2012/02/15
by Brian Robbins

Otis Taylor
Otis Taylor's Contraband


There is no fluff to be found in the music on Otis Taylor’s Contraband. There’s nothing here that’s not integral to a given song’s vibe, boiled down to the bones of its soul and groove. It might not be much more than Taylor’s voice and guitar accompanied lightly by drums and bass (“2 Or 3 Times”) or it might be thick layers of sound (including pedal steel, organ, and cornet) laid down over a pulsating, primal rhythm (“The Devil’s Gonna Lie”). Whatever the recipe, you can trust that Taylor has added nothing that wasn’t necessary to get the job done.

Not only is Otis Taylor a master at creating full dishes from a tune’s basic marrow, he’s equally adept at surrounding himself with players who share the same talent. One of them is daughter Cassie Taylor, who – whether it be by nature, nurture, or a combination of the two – plays the bass as if it’s an extension of Otis’ own picking hand and stomping foot. On “Look To The Side”, the yin of her strutting bass against the yang of her father’s banjo hovering on a single raw chord creates a powerful tension that drives home the song’s emotion; on “Contraband Blues”, her bass lines drive the song’s swirl and whirl hand-in-hand with Anne Harris’ fiddle and the killer percussion work of Larry Thompson.

Chuck Campbell is responsible for the aforementioned pedal steel’s bluesy wail on several tunes – his weave with Taylor’s gruff delivery on “Your 10 Dollar Bill” should be mandatory listening for anyone who wants to hear the sacred steel style of playing at its best. Guitarist Jon Paul Johnson pulls off everything from bits of ache and despair (“Open These Bars”) to total blues bellow ala the late, great Gary Moore (“I Can See You’re Lying”). Ron Miles’ cornet makes a number of appearances on Contraband – dig the way his horn dances with the spiraling, hypnotic guitar line on “Yell Your Name”, chasing a rhythm that feels as ancient as this old world itself. Fara Tolno, a master of the djembe, is the perfect addition to a number songs, finding that space between Thompson’s drums and Taylor’s guitar on songs such as the driving, churning “Romans Had Their Way” and filling it perfectly. And when Brian Juan adds organ flavorings here and there, he does it with taste and respect for the given song’s emotions.

And then, of course, there’s Otis Taylor – telling his stories and painting pictures in your head with no more words than are needed and giving his songs life with his guitar and banjo playing. (By the way: I would challenge anyone to listen to Contraband and tell me – without reading the credits – if Taylor is playing the electric banjo on “Your 10 Dollar Bill” or some vintage nasty-assed guitar through a funky old tube amp that’s near death. Same thing with “Yellow Car, Yellow Dog” – what a sound.)

Taylor presents you with facts and a basic scene in his lyrics; the music provides colors and mood; the rest is up to you. Some things are totally open to your mood of the moment; others are inescapable. You can feel the gentle sou’west breeze off the ocean stirring the curtains in “Blind Piano Teacher” (featuring Todd Edmunds and Cassie Taylor on bass); “Contraband Blues” is a blast of racist hell; “Lay On My Delta Bed” is all down-on-my-knees-and-begging want for a woman; “The Devil’s Gonna Lie” is a middle finger in the horned one’s face.

Deceptively simple on the surface, Otis Taylor’s music on Contraband is as deep as the human condition – and the potential audience is anyone with ears, soul, and a heart.

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