The Jazz.com Blog
March 02, 2008 · 2 comments
Who is the king of acoustic blues?
I know the name you want to say, but -- sorry! -- dead people are excluded from claiming this (or any other) monarchy.
So let me re-phrase the question. Among musicians still capable of tuning a six-string instrument, who is the (capital letters and boldface this time) King of Acoustic Blues?
If you went by record sales, you might pick the talented Keb Mo, who has concocted an appealing mixture of blues, folk and pop, a satisfying gumbo that both celebrates the roots of his music, while gaining a sizable crossover audience. Other contemporary artists, such as Eric Bibb and Grayson Capps, are also adopting this updated blues hybrid, more energy efficient and customized for today's consumer, with varying degrees of success. Blues of this sort is perhaps best viewed as part of the resurgence of new acoustic sounds over the last two decades, and it plays fast and loose with the boundaries between genres.
Then we have other huge talents, such as Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Chris Thomas King, who have demonstrated their remarkable abilities as acoustic blues players. But do any of these artists really want to focus on this style, when larger markets and juicier opportunities beckon? You find them moving into rap, reggae and rock, showing up in movies and documentaries, or tackling various other projects only peripherally related to blues music. Will they ever really find fulfillment in the tiny commercial market that acoustic blues represents? I doubt it.
Visit Alvin Youngblood Hart's MySpace page, for example, and see that he has listed his styles of music as "Rock / Rock / Rock." Of course they limited Alvin to just three answers, so maybe there wasn't room for him to list "blues." But Hart is one of the finest blues players of his generation, and it is more than a little dispiriting to see these signs of how little the blues audience means to him. He could be a King in the land of the blues, but he would rather be a serf in the larger Empire of Rock and Roll.
Give me a blues icon who likes living in the blues, not just visiting it for a lark. Where do I turn then? In short, which of these aspirants, really deserves to be the King of Acoustic Blues?
I am putting my money on Otis Taylor. Everything about his music conveys deep and total commitment. True, he left the blues for a long spell, but not for another style of musicâ€”from 1977 until 1995 Taylor devoted his energies to various non-musical pursuits. This was putting-food-on-the-table time, a dues-paying that does not, in any way, compromise his blues credentials. And when he came back to the music, it was with the fervor of a man who has finally discovered his true calling in mid-life, and is now determined to pursue it with unflagging energy. Since his comeback, every one of Taylor's recordings has absolutely burned with the pure fire of his bluesiness.
If you are looking for pop-oriented blues with catchy hooks, skip this artist. There is no pop in these Rice Crispies, just extra snap and crackle. Taylor plays guitar vamps better than anyone, and he stretches out these repeated figures with more mesmerizing intensity than any blues artist since John Lee Hooker first came on the scene. Some have called this music "Trance Blues," and the name is appropriate. I usually walk away from records that are built so heavily on repetition and lack harmonic variety. But Taylor's groove is so strong, that I can listen to his music at length, and just find myself more and more deeply drawn into it.
And when Taylor looks to add some new ingredient to his music, he doesn't engage in gimmicks or latch on to some up-to-date trend or trick. He doesn't go down the familiar crossover route. For heaven's sake, on his latest CD he turns to the . . . banjo? Yes, that's right, Otis Taylor, the great blues guitarist is now the great blues banjo player. And not only does he immerse himself into this venerable African-American tradition, but he brings along the best of his contemporaries for the ride. On his new CD Recapturing the Banjo, Taylor is joined by Keb Mo, Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart. This is about as strong a crop of modern acoustic blues artists as you will find anywhere on the planet.
Sometimes I worry about the state of blues music. When I check out the Amazon.com chart of best selling blues CDs, it can't escape my attention that most of the musicians listed there are better known for other styles of music. Heck even Dion (of "Runaround Sue" and "A Teenager in Love" fame) has a new blues CD on the market, and it is out-selling Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson. The Son of Skip James? Do you see a family resemblance? But let the part-timers come and go. A little dose of Otis Taylor goes a long way towards allaying my concerns.
By the way, a track from Otis Taylor's
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia