OTIS TAYLOR’S “TRANCE BLUES”

Blues is the motherlode of American popular music, but it’s been debased a lot lately, degraded to beer-commercial
guitar gymnastics and yuppie minstrelsy. Legions of bar bands reduce it to a formula, about 20 standard covers and three or four stock arrangements. And as with punk and rock, how many times can you listen to the same venerable classics before you crave something new?

If you feel like that too, check out Otis Taylor’s new album, “Below the Fold” (Telarc). It’s absolutely brilliant. Taylor, a 57-year-old history buff from Colorado, calls his music “trance blues,” and it fits. The album blends a blues framework with the drone of Indian raga and the drive of bluegrass and funk.

It’s a unique style, and it grabbed me from the first seconds of the first cut. Slide guitar keens hypnotically along with a fiddle, the beat pushed by a two-note bass thump and rapid banjo picking as Taylor reiterates “feel like lightning,” conjuring up the we-shall-not-bemoved courage of the civil-rights movement. Other cuts range from reflective – a lonely, remorseful widower watching hookers in the street on Christmas Day, over a guitar that moves from tense funk to twang – to impressionistically political. “Hey, Mr. Rockefeller, I know your children sleep good tonight,” Taylor repeats in between allusions to the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, while another song, inspired by the coverup of a Nazi execution of black GIs, mournfully intones, “the government lied.”

Below the Fold creates an entrancing, highly original sound without losing its roots or passion. This is one of the few recent albums that has made me grab my friends and tell them, “You have to hear this.”

Another bluesman worth seeking out is New Orleans guitarist Corey Harris, who over the last decade has roamed from, as his excellent 2003 album put it, “Mississippi to Mali,” mixing his 1920s country-blues style with the Malian picking of Ali Farka Toure and Crescent City brass-band music. His 1997 song “5-0 Blues,” with a horn section led
by the late Tuba Fats, is a ragtimey police-brutality blues, the verses stretching from L.A. to New Orleans (“Seen 5-0 killing women, seen 5-0 selling cocaine”) to Philadelphia (“They try to kill Mumia, but they can’t kill us all”).

Otis Taylor is playing Satalla, 37 West 26th St., on Wed, Oct. 5.


OLDIE OF THE MONTH:

This one’s going out to everyone who went to DC on Sept. 24: Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home.” By
1970, the once fervently apolitical Motown Records empire was turning out antiwar tunes. Edwin Starr’s
“War” is the best-known – its “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” chorus has been chanted
by protesters against every American war from Vietnam to Iraq – but this is the one I’ve been spinning. It’s a
classic Motown groove, with a fat bassline, soaring violins and crackling guitar and tambourine under
Payne’s sweet exhortations: “Turn the ships around/Lay your weapons down.” Purists might bemoan its
lack of hardline anti-imperialist analysis – but it hit #12 in 1971.