Otis Taylor’s new album a stark history lesson
THREE OAKS, Mich. — Following his 2015 psychedelic masterpiece "Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat," the latest album from trance blues musician Otis Taylor, "Fantasizing About Being Black," is a stark and poetic lesson on the historical trauma of the black experience.
Taylor’s 15th studio album, released Feb. 17, is a thought-provoking, 11-part statement with seven new songs as well as fresh interpretations of some of his most compelling material such as “Twelve String Mile,” a song about how invisible blacks were in the 1930s, and “Jump Jelly Belly,” about black soldiers in World War II who had the job of transferring cargo between ships on the English Channel.
The new material includes such standouts as “Banjo Bam Bam,” the story of a slave in shackles; “Tripping on This,” an ode to an unlikely father-son reunion; “Jump Out of Line,” which pays homage to the ever-present fear in Civil Rights marches; and “Just Want to Live With You,” which cites the hypocrisy of a public official keeping a black mistress.
Taylor and his band, which includes violinist Anne Harris and drummer Larry Thompson, performs Saturday at The Acorn Theater. In a recent phone interview from his home in Boulder, Colo., he talked about the recording.
Q Let’s start by talking about "Fantasizing About Being Black." Why did you think it was time to tackle these issues together all on one album?
A At the time I wrote this, things were getting rougher. There was the Ferguson thing, and I thought it was time for me to go back and deal with black issues. I’ve always dealt with black issues with two or three or four songs, but never for the whole album. ... Sometimes I don’t think about the words but the songs that are most interesting. I like "Twelve String Mile," which is a song I had done before, and "Jump Out of Line," which is a new song. "Banjo Bam Bam" is a song that looks at just psychologically what slavery can do to a person. Nobody talks about the psychological ramifications, just about being a slave. Did you ever think slavery could drive you crazy? But I don’t want to get too deep here.
Q I always think it’s interesting when an artist revisits songs he did for other projects. There are a few you included here. What made you decide to revisit those tunes?
A Well, it really was because I wanted to have a whole album of songs that directly dealt with this topic, and they were good songs. I think it’s OK to rehash songs as an artist, and I did them differently, too. This is the third time I have done "Walk On Water," but I do them so different that if you’re not an Otis Taylor expert, you wouldn’t notice it. ... Even my last album, "Hey Joe Opus," I’ve done "Hey Joe" three times on my 15 albums. I do that sometimes.
Q There’s always been a thread of social justice running through your work, so what was different for you on this album?
A I think, more than anything, it is just different sonically. Sonically, "Hey Joe Opus" was a big production with a lot of instruments and a bigger sound. On this one, I wanted a smaller sound. I wanted fewer instruments. I wanted it to be more intimate, which is a big change. There’s not a lot of heavy drums. There’s drums, but sometimes it is just a snare drum. You’ll notice there’s only four or five instruments at most. I kept it sparse.
Q You live in Boulder, Colo., and I know it was in Colorado where you first picked up the banjo. How did that come about?
A I was raised about four-and-a-half blocks from the Denver Folklore Center. My brother brought a ukulele back from Hawaii and I broke the string. He gave it to my mother so I thought I was in trouble so I went to get a string and walked in and basically never came out. I went there everyday after school and the teachers taught me for free. It’s where I hung out. People would sit around listen to records, play music it was a magical moment in American history that place. I wish someone would do a book or a movie about it. If I was a writer, I would write a book about all the people who came through there.
Q I know Anne Harris still plays in your band and will be here with you for this show, is the rest of the lineup going to be the same?
A Actually, my daughter, Cassie Taylor, is going to play bass at this show. I play with her about once a year, so this is unusual. She’s a great singer, too. She has been coming on stage with me since she was 11 years old. She sang on "White Africa" when she was 12. She’s an incredible bass player, and I’m not just saying that. Both her and Anne have incredible stage presence. Cassie is as intense as Anne is, so there won’t be much left of me after this one.
If you go
Who: Otis Taylor Band
When: 8 p.m. EDT Saturday
Where: The Acorn Theater, 107 Generations Drive, Three Oaks, Mich.
How much: $30
Contact: 756-3879 or www.acorntheater.com
Artist info: www.otistaylor.com