It's an old refrain most fans have heard a million times . . . "blues is so depressing!" I've argued against it myself many times, pointing out that blues is really all about forgetting your troubles in some weird cathartic sense - that really, it's ideal music for a party . . .
And then something like Otis Taylor's "White African" comes along and turns one's whole worldview upside down.
Simply put, this is the most haunting and harrowing disc I've ever - I was about to say heard, but I think experienced is a better word. Because one doesn't just listen to Otis. His is music so dark, so deeply personal, and so very powerful it's virtually a world unto itself. And having glimpsed Otis' world you may never be the same again.
The songs, all original compositions, are bleak tales of love lost ("Rain So Hard"), social injustice ("My Soul's In Louisiana" is the story of a black hobo accused of a crime he didn't commit), and homelessness ("Hungry People").
"3 Days And 3 Nights" tells of a man who can't afford medical care for a dying child. "Saint Martha Blues" is the utterly devastating story of the lynching of Otis' great grandfather, leaving his wife Martha to raise a family. Even "Round And Round," the one piece that comes closest to upbeat (Otis blowing some fine Sonny Terry -style harp) is about relationships that don't work out.
Most songs are starkly framed by multi-instrumentalist Otis on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica. Producer Kenny Passarelli contributes bass and occasional keys; Eddie Turner provides weirdly mesmerizing electric guitar on four cuts. A few tunes are augmented by "found sounds" - a child's cry, sirens, a train . . . something I usually consider gimmicky. In this case, though, it's all integral to the story, a necessary part of the tale.
Otis' sound is so unique it almost defies description. Comparisons are out - there simply isn't anyone to compare him to. Narrative structure and acoustic accompaniment pay respect to tradition, but the lyrics, and Mr. Turner's angular leads, keep things anchored firmly in the here and now.
"White African" is one of two inaugural releases on Northern Blues, a new label based in Ottawa, Canada. (The other is a reissue of the debut from the JW-Jones Blues Band, another thoroughly worthy release). Future plans are to explore the edges of the blues; label President Fred Litwin promises an exciting and challenging catalogue.
So far so good. This is one of those times when the intensely personal transcends all to become something universal. Which, come to think of it, is probably as good a definition of art as any other.
"White African" is indeed a work of art. It's not easy, but it's quite possibly the most important release you'll hear this year. And you'll be the lesser for it if you don't experience it.
NorthernBlues Music Inc.
67 Mowat Ave, Suite 233
Toronto Ontario Canada M6K 3E3
Web : www.northernblues.com
This review is copyright © 2001 by John Taylor, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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