Friday, May 14, 2004

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: OTIS' BLUES

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, May 14, 2004

Double V is something of a departure for Colorado blues monster Otis Taylor. It’s his first album in years without producer/bassist (and Santa Fe resident) Kenny Passarelli and guitarist Eddie Turner.


Here Otis handles guitar duties himself as well as banjo, mandolin and harmonica, while his teenage daughter Cassie Taylor plays bass. (She sings lead on one track, “Buy Myself Some Freedom.”)

And on some songs, he uses cellos.

I can already hear the purists moan. Muddy Waters never used no stinkin’ cello! Not to worry. Taylor’s not getting pompous and prissy here. Some have compared these cuts with the music of John Cale. I think Van Morrison is a more apt reference point. No, he’s not trying to recreate Astral Weeks or Veedon Fleece. But Taylor is bringing new textures to the blues.

He employs African-pop “happy guitar” on some songs like “Please Come Home Before It Rains” and “Sounds of Attica.” He goes country blues on others, such as the nightmarish “It’s Done Happened Again.” And for a couple of tunes, Otis stands alone: it’s just him and his harmonica on “Took Their Land” and just his moaning voice on “Hurry Home.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Taylor’s talent for painting harrowing, politically charged and intensely emotional pictures with his lyrics. These are “pictures from life’s other side” as Hank Williams would say. There’s the autobiographical “Mama’s Selling Heroin”; “Plastic Spoon,” a story of old people having to eat dog food in order to afford their medicine; and a lament for the injustices against Native Americans on “Took Their Land.”

I hope the absence of Passarelli and Turner is temporary. They’re missed here. Still, Double V is a strong album. I still believe Otis Taylor is the most relevant bluesman working today.

Also Recommended:

*Remember Me by Charles Caldwell.
This is the kind of album that the Fat Possum label became famous for. Raw, stripped-down blues - a rasty old coot from Mississippi with a loud electric guitar, sometimes backed by an eager drummer. If you like R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford and Paul “Wine” Jones, chances are you’ll like Charles Caldwell.

Caldwell was “discovered” by Fat Possum overlord Matthew Johnson in May 2002. Johnson recorded the tracks for this album. But last September Caldwell died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 60. He never saw his first CD.

A sad story, true. But the music is a wild joy.

More recommendations:
The Columbia Legacy Roots ’n’ Blues Series.
Columbia recently has reached into its vaults for a whole mess of blues and blues-related material from the ’20s and ’30s. Here’s some recently released CDs:

*Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down: The Best of The Mississippi Sheiks.This is a 20-song collection by one of the most influential string bands of the 1930s.

With a basic arrangement of fiddle, guitar and vocals, the revolving Sheik roster included singer Walter Vinson and various members of the Chatmon (sometimes spelled Chatman) family - Lonnie, Sam and sometimes Bo. They also backed bluesman Texas Alexander (a few of those tracks are included here). And though they don’t appear on this compilation, famous bluesmen like Charlie Patton and Memphis Slim (both reportedly Chatmon relatives) passed through the live version of the Mississippi Sheiks.

If nothing else, the Sheiks should be honored for “Sitting on Top of the World,” which has been covered by everyone from Sinatra to the Grateful Dead, Howlin’ Wolf to Harry Belafonte.

Then there are Sheik songs the mainstream never would touch.

Bo Chatmon also had a solo career under the name “Bo Carter” that produced such risqué blues hits as “Please Warm My Weiner” and “Banana In Your Fruit Basket.” Those aren’t included here, but the other Sheiks weren’t above some good, clean double-entendre action, as evidenced in Lonnie’s “Bed Spring Poker” and Vinson’s “Ramrod Blues.”

*Crazy Blues: The Best of Mamie Smith. Before Bessie Smith was “queen of the blues,” that title belonged to another (unrelated) Smith - Mamie.

Mamie’s 1920 signature tune, “Crazy Blues,” is considered the pioneer classic blues number. It was the first million-selling blues song. With her flamboyant stage costumes, this former vaudevillian created the mold for the great female blues stars for years to come.

But despite their common surname and their sequins, Mamie and Bessie were very different performers. Mamie’s voice was as clear as Bessie’s was rough.

Some argue her sound wasn’t technically blues at all. Her band on “Crazy Blues” was the Jazz Hounds, and, like all her subsequent bands, it was a horn-heavy group. (Look, Ma, no guitars!)

Call it what you want. The lady had soul.

*Shave ’Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan. Bessie Smith may have been rougher and tougher than Mamie Smith. But some of the songs on this compilation make Bessie look like Debby Boone.

Lucille Bogan, who was raised in Birmingham, Ala., recorded during the mid-’30s. She never got as famous as Bessie or Mamie, but some of her songs have made her infamous among blues collectors for years.

Accompanied solely by Walter Roland’s piano on most tracks, Bogan sings songs that just radiate sex - sex with men and sex with women. “B.D. Blues” - hint, the B stands for bull - is one of the first songs in recording history to openly celebrate lesbianism.

She sings of sex for sale, sex for free, sex until the cows come home, sex as barbecue, sex as stew meat, wild sex, rough sex, crazy sex and, above all, funny sex. Bogan’s world sounds like a dirty joke that you never want to end.

Of course, Bogan’s raunchiest tunes - the title cut and “Till the Cows Come Home” - weren’t commercially released until years after Bogan’s death. According to the liner notes, only a few copies were made for friends. Luckily, at least one copy of these survived.

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