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Music Review: Otis Taylor – Contraband

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When things weren’t going well for Otis Taylor during the mid-1970s, he retired from the music business and became an antiques dealer for 18 years. The antiques business’ loss was music’s gain as he has been a prolific artist since his 1995 return. Contraband is his 12th studio album since his comeback.

Taylor is basically a blues artist at heart, although he will travel beyond the  blues on occasion. He also is a talented guitarist and banjo player whose skills have been honed by years in the studio and on the road. Add in his gruff and gritty vocals, his syncopated rhythms, and  incisive lyrics, and you have the basics of his music.

His approach to his albums has been eclectic at times, but always interesting. His last album, Clovis People Volume 3, traveled in an odd thematic direction; while his guitar work and the individual songs were always good in and of themselves, the album’s cohesiveness was not always apparent. Those issues are not a problem with his new release.

The title song of his new album, “Contraband Blues,” is a guitar-based tune about Civil War slaves who were freed by the Union Army, but who were not really free. This track of people being treated as contraband is the album’s emotional centerpiece from which all the other tracks flow outward.

“Blind Piano Teacher” tells the story of a young black piano teacher who lives with an older white man. The six-and-a-half-minute “Open These Bars” is a rambling exploration through the Jim Crow years of the South. “Never Been To Africa” tells the bleak story of a black soldier who fought all over the world during World War I but had never seen Africa. “Look To The Side” travels in a different direction as it is mainly an acoustic love song, which makes use of his unique electric banjo. “I Can See You Lying” is the type of dark and twisted love song that he has been so good at creating down through the years.

He gathers around him his usual expert collection of supporting musicians: Ron Miles on cornet, pedal steel guitarist Chuck Campbell, djembe player Fara Tolno, fiddler Anne Harris, bassists Cassie Taylor (his daughter) and Todd Edmunds, guitarist Jon Paul Johnson, keyboardist Brian Juan, and drummer Larry Thompson.  All move in and out of his original 14 compositions.

Otis Taylor has been making up for lost time during the last couple of decades. Contraband continues his tradition of creating material addressing passion, life, racism, and redemption. His latest group of songs is well worth exploring, especially if you appreciate some honest American blues.

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