Jam together during the holidays at Otis Taylor's Trance Blues Festival
Everybody thinks I play gloom-and-doom music," says Otis Taylor, "so I don't get hired to play during the holidays, because people think my music is too dark. It's just what people think: 'You'd get Otis Taylor for a Christmas party? I don't think so.'"
Taylor's trance-blues shows are actually uplifting experiences. Just the same, this prevailing misperception left the bluesman without much work this past winter. So while back in Boulder for the holidays this time last year, he decided to throw an impromptu blues workshop and jam at the Boulder Outlook Hotel. Around fifty people showed up, including kids, lawyers and politicians, and all of them left elated.
"People just walked out kind of high or something," Taylor recalls. "They're just really happy, because they've never played with anybody. Everybody was able to ask questions. It was like a family thing; you get to play with people. When I'd point to somebody, they'd take a lead. Nobody was there to show off or anything, like 'See what I got' or push anybody off the stage, because we're all playing in the same room, all together."
This year he's taking that concept a step further with Otis Taylor's Trance Blues Jam Festival, which is taking place this week across various venues in Boulder. For this year's edition, Taylor has enlisted legendary blues guitarist "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin and lauded banjo players Tony Trischka and Don Vappie to participate, leading workshops and performing at Saturday's "super jam." Since everybody's playing at the same time, essentially attendees can say they jammed with Trischka, even though they're in the audience. Taylor says it would be on par with getting a chance to jam with one of his heroes, Howlin' Wolf.
"I know that if in 1967 Howlin' Wolf had a trance-blues workshop and I got to play with Howlin' Wolf, I'd be pretty hellaciously stoked out," he declares. "These guys are legends. I can't talk for myself, but I know the other people are legends. That's why I tried to pick people who have a reputation that everybody's into."
Taylor says that one of the most important things to know about the festival is that people don't have to be musicians to participate in it. "You can't mess up the song," Taylor says. "It's pretty close to impossible, because there are no chord changes. You can't get lost."
With trance blues, which has its roots in Africa and the hill country of Mississippi, the songs are based around one tonal center, and there aren't any chord changes, making it fairly easy for them to go on for long periods of time and allowing folks to jump in at any point. On Friday, there's an "electric circular jam" slated to take place that will allow players to be swapped out every ten minutes or so. A bass player might get off the stage, for instance, and another one will take his place. "And the song never stops," Taylor points out. "People will go up, and if they're not very good, somebody else will cover them, and we'll keep a couple of main guys to keep the groove going." Likewise, at the Sink that same night, an acoustic jam is scheduled where everybody plays at the same time.
Taylor says the festival's an ideal place for people who played an instrument in high school but haven't touched it in twenty years, or for those who sang in the choir in high school or grade school but haven't sung since then. "You don't have to be a musician," he explains. "You just come with something. You just come with a voice or a tambourine; it could be a French horn, a guitar, an accordion or a recorder." Taylor hopes to see people singing in front of other people for the first time in their lives. And he says it doesn't matter if people play good or bad, because they'll be together.
"Everyone is rooting for you," he enthuses. "We try to take out the competition aspect. It's not about what you got. If you're on a football team and somebody runs faster, you're going to guard for him. It's all part of the community; it's all part of the team. We're all on the same team. So if somebody doesn't play as good, you're going to root for him."
Creating community is the whole point of the festival.
"You have to be part of the community," he says. "I think people like that. We're pack animals. I think we like that feeling. That's why you go to football games. It's the same kind of emotion. When the team's winning, you like the guy sitting next to you. When the team's losing, it's like, 'Forget it.'"
Taylor has high hopes for his burgeoning festival. At some point, he would like to see the whole thing expanded so that it's almost like a mini-South by Southwest, only it wouldn't be about anybody getting signed or being seen. It would be about the people.
"One day I hope to have it at twenty venues," Taylor muses. "You walk in the coffeehouse, and there's a guy with a banjo and somebody with an accordion, and then you just walk in and play a little while. And you walk back out to the next place down the street. People just float around because the songs won't end, basically. You don't have to go sign up. You just walk around with your fiddle — 'Let me go see what that guy's doing.' And you play a little bit, walk out, have a drink and go to the next bar. That's what we want to build it to.
"It's almost like trick-or-treating or something," he goes on. "And it's kid-oriented, too, so families can walk in and they can start playing and walk out. Or you stay in one place all night and have fun."
Taylor also envisions the older players helping out younger ones. "Say you have two guitar players sitting next to each other," he says. "A kid is ten years old and the other guy is fifty, and the guy says, 'Can I tune your guitar for you?' That's the kind of mentality I want. If the kids have trouble, then the other guy grabs the guitar and the other guy tunes it for him. That's the kind of camaraderie I want — people helping each other. That's the kind of atmosphere that I want."
Taylor, who just returned from a short tour in Europe, is gearing up for the release of his new album, Otis Taylor's Contraband, which is due for release February 13 on the Telarc imprint. Not surprisingly, his approach to playing his own shows sounds strikingly similar to the tenets informing his Trance Fest. He doesn't aim to play at the people, Taylor notes — he plays to the people.
"I actually play happy sets," he concludes. "When I play in front of people, I want them to be happy."
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