Hey Joe Opus Red Meat
Label: Trance Blues Festival Label
Release Date: May 5, 2015
Review Date: May 3, 2015
“Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat,” the new album from visionary roots music songwriter and bandleader Otis Taylor, is a psychedelic masterpiece. Blending his uniquely poetic songwriting and the compelling musical approach that he calls “trance blues,” the recording — due on May 5, 2015 on Taylor’s new Trance Blues Festival label — cuts to the core of the human spirit with its mix of vocal and instrumental performances, letting its hypnotic sound as well as Taylor’s lyrics tell its story.
Otis explains that his 14th album is “about decisions and their consequences. It’s about how decisions and the actions that result can change our lives, the lives of our families and the lives of people we don’t even know. Sometimes you win in life; sometimes you lose. You want the outcome of your decisions to be good, but sometimes its bad. And that’s when you don’t eat the meat. The meat eats you.”
Typical for Taylor, he’s found a unique way of expressing those ideas in a grand work. The songs on “Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat” comprise a suite in 10 parts, designed to be heard as a complete recording, with the classic song of decisions and their consequences “Hey Joe” as its overarching theme. That number, made famous as the debut single from the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966, was written by folk artist Billy Roberts and has intrigued Taylor and been part of his live concerts for two decades.
In a gambit that recalls Pink Floyd’s use of recurring musical themes on their enduring multi-platinum album Wish You Were Here, “Hey Joe” appears on “Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat twice.” The first version, which starts the album, features Gov’t Mule and Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes. The second features Langhorne Slim on backing vocals. Haynes also plays on the first of three appearances of the Taylor composition “Sunday Morning,” which follows. His bold guitar tones mesh perfectly with Taylor’s sonic tapestry as both songs set the tone for the album. The recurring motifs in “Sunday Morning” are especially striking, drawing on powerful, single-chord rhythms and the interplay of Taylor band members Todd Edmunds on bass, guitarist Taylor Scott, drummer Larry Thompson and violinist Anne Harris, who often plays melodic and textural foil to Taylor’s idiosyncratic, mesmerizing guitar. They’re joined by keyboardists Gus Skinas and Steve Vidaic, cornetist Ron Miles, banjo player David Moore and, on “Peggy Lee,” a song about a man undergoing a sex change, String Cheese Incident guitarist Bill Nershi. Together they bring Taylor’s unfailingly brilliant ideas to kaleidoscopic life.
The album introduces four more new Taylor songs. “The Heart Is a Muscle” is a driving tune about the complexities of love and “Cold at Midnight” mixes loneliness and infidelity into Taylor’s potent aural swirl. There’s also “Red Meat,” driven by Taylor playing his signature model Santa Cruz acoustic guitar, and the elegant instrumental “They Wore Blue,” which transitions the album into its second half.
“I’m always trying to find something different to do with each album,” says Taylor. “It gets harder with each one I make, but I really enjoy the idea of challenging myself to find new ways to tell stories and make art.” His previous album, 2013’s My World Is Gone, explored the struggles of Native Americans and enlisted the virtuoso guitar of Indigenous frontman Mato Nanji, who is a member of the Nakota Nation.
Taylor has been pursuing his own singular musical vision — a fusion of the primal hum of raw, primitive blues and contemporary, free-ranging expressionism — since the 1960s, when the banjoist, guitarist, bassist and harmonica player first toured the U.S. and Europe with a variety of blues-based bands including Zephyr, for whom Taylor played bass, and G&O Short Line, which included legendary guitarist Tommy Bolin.
Taylor left the music business in 1977 to pursue dealing in art and antiques, and to raise a family. (His daughter Cassie has appeared on many of his recordings singing and playing bass, and today is a recording artist in her own right.) He also pursued his passion for bicycle racing, as a coach. During the ’90s, Taylor was drawn back into music making by friends in the Boulder area. By 1996 and the arrival of his debut album Blue-Eyed Monster, he was performing once again. With the release of his next two discs, When Negroes Walked the Earth and White African, Taylor began to emerge as a singular voice in the American roots scene, acclaimed here and abroad for his riveting music and his unflinching honesty in writing about racism, struggle, freedom, heritage and the complications of human life.
To date he has received 16 Blues Music Award (BMA) nominations. White African captured a BMA for best debut album. Taylor is also nominated regularly as an instrumentalist for his banjo playing, and won a Blues Music Award for his original style in 2009, following the release of Recapturing the Banjo, an album that examined the instrument’s deep African roots. His albums Double V, Definition of a Circle and Recapturing the Banjo all won DownBeat’s Best Blues CD award in 2005, 2007 and 2008, respectively. He also took the magazine’s Critic’s Choice Award for Best Blues Album for 2003’s Truth Is Not Fiction. And Taylor has been nominated two times for the prestigious Académie Charles Cros award in France, winning the Grand Prix du Disc for Blues in 2012. Three years ago, Contraband — his 12th album — took the DownBeat Critics’ Choice award again for Blues Album of the Year.
In 2009 Taylor’s "Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs" was unveiled the same week that two of his tunes appeared in the Hollywood blockbuster Public Enemy, directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Previously his music had appeared in the 2007 Mark Wahlberg vehicle Shooter. And in 2000 Taylor was a fellow in the Sundance Institute’s Film Music Program.
In 2010 Taylor began his Trance Blues Festival, which gives his new label its name, in Boulder, Colorado. The annual event brings a broad cast of professional and amateur musicians together for three days of performances, jams and workshops. This year’s Trance Blues Festival will be held at the eTown Theater in Boulder on November 7.
“Music is not a spectator sport,” he observes. “In a world where there is a lot of misunderstanding, music can help people communicate and break down barriers, and really start to see each other for who they are.”
His songs also lend perspective, thanks to the spare and insightful lyrics and elemental music that’s always at the core of his albums, including Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat. “My music,” says Taylor, “is always about the truth. People care about the truth, because the truth is important. And I want people to care about my songs, because I push myself very hard to create each album and make it the best that I possibly can. My albums are my legacy, and I want them to endure.”