Otis Taylor | 03.14.04 | 1751 Social Club |San Francisco, CA
A single phrase, a duh-duh-duh-du-da banjo line, an image of brown hair or Frankenstein's heart, the feel of a hand on your stomach or a nasty letter waiting in the mailbox. It is the smallest of details, the cursive bend in Otis Taylor's sound that crawls up the back of your spine. In a beat-driven howl that does Charley Patton proud, Taylor works a few lines, blacksmithed mantras, around the gradually unfurling frame of a snake awakening, a hard, syncopated telegraph wire to Africa. He is an anomaly in this age of codified blues idiom, twelve-bar repetition, comfortable and benign in its domestication. Otis is "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues" when we need them most; there's an awful lot to be pissed off about, scared by, intolerance and neglect rampant where they should not be. On the invitation of drummer Greg Anton (Zero, Gregg's Eggs) Taylor came to San Francisco for a single mesmerizing jam in the tradition of many a smoked-out sixties heyday.
With just one brief rehearsal under their belt, this makeshift quartet took the stage on a brisk, clear Sunday night. Joining Otis was his 17-year old daughter Cassie Taylor (bass, vocals), Japanese guitarist Futoshi, and Anton on drums. On albums, Taylor doesn't use percussion, letting other instruments carry the rhythm, often discrete bumps repeated ad nauseum, a back road version of Philip Glass repetition. Given his brick-breaking intensity, Anton's presence signaled a shift in the normal sound, a movement to the left coast musically as well as geographically, away from the spare, cello-touched terrain of Truth Is Not Fiction and Respect The Dead (the two most recent sets with a new one produced by Otis himself, Double V, arriving in late April).
1751 Social Club is some pretty swank digs. Classy abstract paintings, a glitter top bar, subdued, consciously tasteful without sacrificing the hip. Many of those gathered had come for the food and atmosphere and were just lucky enough to be present for this one-off performance. Standing tall and wide, big calloused hands embracing his electric guitar, he greeted us, "I'm Otis and this is San Francisco-style blues." Applause as tasteful as the surroundings murmured welcome. Cassie, dressed in hippy chic, bright red hair pulled back, smiled low at her dad. They moved slowly, chopping angular slashes cutting clean, easy edges off. And then she opens her mouth and a pure spirit wind hits us.
If her father's voice is an oak, something rooted and thick with the bark and rings of time, then she is a eucalyptus, supple in the breeze, a bright, green fragrance that grounds you in nature. Several times over the two sets I shake my head in disbelief that this young woman holds her own with such grace and dignity when playing with stone cold veterans, men with decades of shows and songs under their belts. "Wish I could go down to the department store and buy myself some freedom," she sings and we ache at the simple truth of this desire, a thought held by many but expressed aloud by few. On bass, she's a heartbeat, a steady muscle, feeding the limbs of this big brown body. She is scary talented and by all appearances seems together enough to blossom even further over time.
By the end of the first number, the applause had grown decidedly less demure, everyone realizing they were in the presence of something special. Taylor's songs are often not very complex, simple sketches with ample room to explore. Many of the tracks on his records are first takes and he says there's not usually more than three takes of anything. He's a pure improviser, a channeler, a soothsayer drawing buckets of water to help clear our mud-slung eyes, opening the way to a tomorrow that learns from yesterday. Greg Anton's decidedly powerful drums slid in perfectly, a compliment and expansion on the spaces provided. Greg shows off just enough technique to convince you that every beat, every tangy cymbal crash, is just as he would have it.
Adding in color splatter, background texture, and dazzling blasts of spontaneity, Futoshi sat on a stool to Otis's left. His apparent repose might have mislead one into thinking this was a figure of tranquility. Not so. Like the Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins he exhibited unexpected, bared-claw fury. That type of jack-in-the-box aggressive intensity comes only from a seated focus and made me wistfully flash on Widespread's dearly departed Mike Houser several times.
During a cover of "Hey Joe," the sole non-Taylor number of the night, I watched Otis lean against a pole conspicuously cemented in the dead center of the stage. Eyes closed, transmitting loud and clear from the astral crossroads, it felt as if we were hearing a mountain or the sky speak. For those that fall all over themselves praising the North Mississippi Allstars as blues saviors, I can only say that until you've heard this stuff, felt the density of it, then it's time for a lesson. Free from chord changes, drifting between African high fife and spittoon grease field songs, Otis Taylor makes the temperature rise, waves of beautiful stillness flowing from his whole being. Thinking this I peeked at Anton who was shaking, passion playing in his shoulders, eyes, open wordless mouth, as he hit a cymbal again, again, again. The beast was free, fur damp, matted, under a full hot moon.
Some passages emerged into Jefferson Airplane space, bright kaleidoscopes spinning jackrabbit quick. One freaker hopped up in barefoot wild child abandon, infectiously unabashed, unshackled by propriety. Her flailing bonfire dance spooked some of the dinner crowd but even they were eventually compelled to rise and work their own primitive dessert-swirled mating dance. The lifeblood of blues flowing onto the floor made them slip off their usual constraint and move, pushed along by the thunderous pump of a kick drum, Futoshi echoing back licks to Otis. That this all transpires during a tune about an Indian who loses his horse because he's drunk is all the more mys-ta-fying, children. From such rugged soil emerged pockets of happiness, the small delight of looking up at the open sky for the first time after staring at your shoes all day.
Otis Taylor by Ethem Parlar
Over the course of two hours, this band created immediate, vibrant music free of any subterfuge, any clinging to status quo, free of anything that was not itself. While the ghosts of folk singers and segregation and electric dustbowl kickers hover near Otis Taylor they never overtake what it is at his center: a profound rumination on freedom. Freedom from expectation, freedom from stupidity and narrow minds, freedom from the past. Stepping back into the approaching fog, lighting a smoke, I pulled on my beat-up coat and made my way home under the streetlamp glow. The struggle in his verses just assures me that this is a fight worth accepting. Might not come easy and when the mirror turns our way we may not like the face we see. Otis engages with the truth in a manner that inspires me to look, deal with that reflection and then act on the convictions it stirs. Now that's what I call a real blue soul solatium, a freely offered balm for our hurts and failings, traveling music for our hobo strolls to keep us fed between the long miles and want of living.
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