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Since 1995, when he began playing music again after an 18-year break, singer/guitarist/banjoist Otis Taylor has been playing blues like no one else. The Chicago-born, Denver-raised performer, who performs at Blues Alley tonight with his band, generates noisy drones and sharp, deliberate runs that he accompanies with chanted, dramatically evocative vocals and stripped-down arrangements featuring carefully inserted supporting instruments. His singular music does not call to mind Miller Lite blooz clichés or Southern soul. On albums such as Blue-Eyed Monster, When Negroes Walked the Earth, and last year’s memorable Clovis People Volume 3, Taylor sings of personal and worldly experiences that reflect his life as someone whose great-grandfather was lynched and uncle was murdered. His songbook also is derived from his having heard country blues as a teenager at the Denver Folklore Center, being a father of two daughters, and as someone with an academic and visceral interest in history, especially American history. The song titles in Taylor’s catalog help convey his vision: “9th Cavalry Blues,” “Mama’s Selling Heroin,” “Ten Million Slaves,” “Young Girl Down the Street,” and “Sounds of Attica.”
Taylor played in bands in America and England as a teenager and 20-something, but at 29 quit and became an antiques dealer and cycling coach. None of his music from that time is currently available. While Taylor’s current music, referred to by some as “trance blues,” is occasionally over-repetitive and limited melodically, his finest cuts are eerie and atmospheric. On Clovis People Volume 3, whose title refers to the earliest existing North American people who suddenly disappeared, leaving only archeological remains near Taylor’s Boulder home, the singer revisits some of his compositions from the last fifteen years, adds guest musicians on pedal steel, cello, and organ, and explains the meaning of the cuts via the CD’s minimalistic liner notes. “Little Willie” is explained as “[a] young boy is shot dead on the school playground and his mother is telephoned,” while “It’s Done Happened Again” is described simply as “[a] man is awakened by another person’s heartache.”
Otis Taylor and band perform Tuesday at 8 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $25 (plus drink and service charge) (202) 337-4141