It's just minutes before the March 23 taping of the Seven Voices pilot -- a series of live DVDs being produced in hi-def by Immersive Studios -- when I realize I'm the owner of a brimming bladder. What's more, I'm already seated in the back row of the Boulder studio's No. 7 soundstage.
"ONCE SEATED, IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT YOU REMAIN SEATED FOR PART ONE AND PART TWO OF THE PERFORMANCE," reads the audience-guidelines sheet the doorman handed me on the way in. "Leaving your seat will likely halt the performance and the filming."
I'm horrible about following directions. Always have been. What can I say? I'm a loner, Dottie, a rebel. But tonight I won't be pissing on anyone's parade. Not when I am one of 75 people lucky enough to get tickets for this exclusive gig by Otis Taylor, the artist Immersive chose for its pilot. Besides being one of Colorado's most prized musical exports, Taylor's a national treasure, and the privilege of seeing him live in this intimate, Storyteller-esque environment is worth any minor discomfort I might have to endure.
As Taylor, clad in his trademark yellow University Bicycles cap, makes his way to the stage, a hush rolls across the audience like a wave. It's a good thing: Although Taylor is a grizzly bear of a man -- imagine Victor French, Michael Landon's bearded sidekick on Highway to Heaven, if he were a couple of shades darker, with a ball cap and a pair of ice-blue contacts -- he's surprisingly soft-spoken. Which is weird, considering just how ominous his music is. Of course, it could also be due to the fact that Taylor's been sidelined by a cold all week. Nonetheless, tonight, despite Immersive's elegant setup, he seems more like a guy playing his songs in his living room for and with a few friends. Standing in front of floor-length velvet curtains and flanked by a parade of guitars, amps and a drum kit -- obviously cosmetic, since Taylor doesn't employ a timekeeper -- Taylor charms us right off the bat. It's disarming to discover that he isn't taking this whole thing too seriously.
"They want me to tell stories," he says as he tunes his guitar. "But right now, I don't have a story."
Yeah, right. Anyone familiar with Taylor knows that the acclaimed musician has quite a story. The Chicago native moved to Denver with his parents in the early '50s, after his uncle was brutally murdered. When he was fourteen, Taylor happened upon the Denver Folklore Center, and it was there that the precocious teen picked up his first instrument and convinced founder and local folk legend Harry Tuft and his staff to tutor him.
"Otis always had a good persona," Tuft comments. "He always had a good sense of himself. He wasn't egotistical; it was just a good self image, I guess you could call it. He was willing to be experimental, to try things out. He wasn't afraid to fail."
Thanks to Tuft and company, Taylor ended up becoming a multi-instrumentalist, and he played in a few local outfits before heading to London in the late '60s. Upon returning to Colorado a short time later, Taylor linked up with Tommy Bolin in T&O Short Line, 4-Nikators and Zephyr. Then, in 1977, Taylor set aside performing and became an antiques dealer. He re-emerged in 1997 with Blue Eyed Monster, the first in a string of stirring releases -- 1998's When Negroes Walked the Earth, 2001's White African, 2002's Respect the Dead, 2003's Truth Is Not Fiction, 2004's Double V and 2005's Below the Fold -- that garnered reams of praise and ultimately earned numerous WC Handy nods as well as an award for "Best New Artist Debut."
Taylor has dubbed his sound "trance blues," and that's a perfect way to describe his sparse sound; he completely transcends the blues idiom. He's more of a singer-songwriter who uses blues as a foundation than a traditional bluesman. Drenched in reverb and delay, Taylor's plaintive songs are driven by terse arpeggios that linger, as opposed to the soul-kissed, fleet-fingerings of SRV and his ilk or the rustic voicings of the Delta giants. And his velvety croon -- a sure-handed, tonal composite of Ray Charles, Teddy Pendergrass and Bruce Cockburn -- is a thing of utter beauty in itself. But what really sets him apart are his brooding, thought-provoking narratives. Rather than just plumbing the depths of despair, Taylor's socially conscious songs are incisive and relevant.
As expected, Taylor more than delivers on this night. He peppers two 35-minute sets with plenty of older material, along with songs from his forthcoming album, Definition of a Circle, due out sometime next year. The most striking of the new compositions is "A Few Feet Away from You," which deals with the not-so-subtle racism he and Cassie, his light-skinned progeny, faced as she was growing up.
"I wrote this song," Taylor explains. "It's about my daughter. As you can see, she doesn't really look like me. When she was little, we would travel and people would stare. ŒWhy is this big black man with this little girl?'"
Accompanied by Cassie on bass, a cellist, a mandolin player and a lap-steel player, Taylor sounds as vital as ever as he steers through his songs with several different guitars and banjos. Sure, there are a few moments of imperfection and an undue amount of time spent tuning (he reportedly declined to have a guitar tech on hand), but those things only enhance the organic nature of his music. Plus, his charming dialogue more than fills up the empty space. "You know this is not in tune, don't ya'," Taylor notes, with a chuckle. "I wanted to do a concert where I tuned in front of everybody so everybody could feel my pain."
Or mine. The whole show was captured on tape, and I can't wait to see it again when Immersive issues it this May. Only this time around, bladder infection be damned, I'll be able to pause for the cause.
Upbeats and Beatdowns: Props to all the homegrown acts I caught in Austin at this year's SXSW -- The Photo Atlas, Born in the Flood, the Swayback, Dressy Bessy, D.O.R.K. , the Great Redneck Hope and DeVotchKa (not to mention Epilogue, who played an impromptu tune for me on Sixth Street, and the crazed boys of Machine Gun Blues) -- who all completely killed. No word yet on what -- if anything -- will come of this year's showcases, but I did spy Diane Meltzer -- Wind-up Records A&R -- at Born in the Flood's Saturday night gig. Morning After Records' Dan Rutherford confirms that there has indeed been a substantial amount of post-SXSW interest and says he's in talks with some prime players, though he's not willing to reveal who quite yet. Stay tuned.