With the exception of a nearly 20-year hiatus between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, Otis Taylor has been refining his form of trance-blues music for decades. His records are made carefully and deliberately—the better to drive home the social and cultural messages behind his music. His live performances are just as noteworthy: known for taking the James Brown-style approach of eschewing a setlist and picking songs to play in the moment, Taylor has figured out a way to pull together a group of musicians just as talented as he is who can tune in to his performative wavelength and shine on their own when he calls on them to solo.
When Taylor returns to the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival stage in Colorado September 13-15, Mato Nanji of Indigenous will join Taylor’s band onstage during a weekend Taylor sounds genuinely excited about. Taylor took time out of his Labor Day Weekend to share with Blues Rock Review why he keeps coming back to this particular festival and how he balances his yen for control in the studio with onstage performances that, from the outside at least, seem spontaneous. After answering a few of our questions, Taylor posed one of his own. “I always have a mantra that I tell people: What if the greatest blues musician hasn’t been born yet?” Taylor asked. “I always leave that in people’s minds because that means the blues isn’t dead.”
What keeps bringing you back to the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival?
It’s both the vibe and the audience, and the beauty. It’s my 34th wedding anniversary; that weekend always hits my wedding anniversary.
It’s beautiful. It’s a really well-oiled, super highly efficient festival. I never say it’s my most favorite, because that means I don’t like the other ones. But it’s one of my favorites.
What other festivals are on your list of favorites?
I once played at Monterey Jazz. That’s the one my father used to go to, so it was really emotional for me. He passed in 1974, so it was like walking on the same ground he walked on. He was a big jazz guy.
There are certain things that have memories to them, like playing Chicago Blues Festival. I’ve played a lot of festivals; I have a lot of good memories. I was born in Chicago and lived there when I was young. A lot of it has to do with my emotional attachments to the festivals.
There are a lot of great festivals. But sometimes just playing at a little club—it doesn’t have to be thousands of people. I go 100% whether I’m in a big room or a little room or a big field. It’s the energy that you create. It’s the perfect storm. But you never know if you’re going to get it until you walk off the stage. It’s like a football game: You might start off a little weak, but if you finish really strong, that’s what people remember.
How do your experiences in the studio versus onstage differ?
With recording you can stop and start over. I like recording because I can control everything. But live, it’s a perfect storm; it’s incredible if you have the audience and everybody’s playing good. Even though you can’t think it’s cool until you’re finished, to make sure there are no mistakes. It’s like running for five miles—you have to make sure it all goes right for an hour.
In the studio I have far more latitude about doing things and mixing things. I produce my own records, so I have my own technique. It’s hard to explain. It’s like mixing things, being an alchemist. If you don’t put the right combinations in, you don’t get gold.
As both the performer and the producer, when do you know to stop tweaking elements of the recording in the studio?
I have a really good instinct for that. Usually what I have to do is get the engineers to calm down. I’m a kind of savant when it comes to that. Or I used to be. I’ve been trying to get into the studio in the last three months, but things were just…I couldn’t get ahold of the engineers, they wouldn’t call me back. Then I found a new studio, but it was brand new, they’re building it. They couldn’t get it done when I wanted to come in. Then I had a death in the family. I have to try to get in again this winter. I should’ve had something to take to Telluride, but I don’t. Nothing new. But that’s just the way life is—it hands you certain things and you have to deal with it.
Since you like having control in the studio, is it difficult for you to let the music take its own course when you’re onstage?
Life is taking control. I’m watching the audience enjoying things. It’s a joke when we hire someone new in the band and they go up to somebody and go, “Where’s the setlist?” And everybody starts laughing. There is no setlist. I watch how people react and decide what I want to do next. I have a pattern, but I’ll switch it if it’s not going right. It’s very organic. I don’t have to move; they can feel it. I can touch the guitar a certain way and they know what’s going on. They’re all watching me. Then when someone takes the lead, we all watch them. It’s sort of a magical thing. It’s like James Brown. He was controlling that stage. Buddy Guy controls the stage. You get six people trying to figure out where to go to dinner and you never get there, you know what I mean? It don’t work that way. Somebody’s got to be the leader.
All the band members need to be in sync with one another for that kind of performance technique to work. How do you find musicians to play with who are able to fit into that style?
I pick people who can do that. They have to be able to play really good; they have to be able to play better than me. They have to be able to listen. I give everybody a chance to shine in a concert; it’s my style so that they don’t look like backup musicians. It looks like we’re sharing the stage. That’s one of my secrets.
At the same time, I have to work with the audience. I get them kind of crazy at the end of the show; I’m paying attention to the audience. I have to know that when I say, “Stand up,” they’re going to stand up. I’ve only failed twice in my life since I’ve been saying that. Once was in a casino, and the other time I said, “The closer you come to me the better I play” in Italy, and everybody picked up their chairs and pushed them closer to the stage. I said, “Oh my god, I just killed my show.” A show is a very delicate thing.
You took a nearly two-decade break from music and came back in the mid-1990s, right before evolving technologies had one of the most significant impacts on music. What was it like to watch that transition happen right as you were returning to the music industry?
I was there just before the change, and then it really changed. We’ve got all these computers, Facebook. What’s the truth? Nobody can tell what the truth is. A lot of people believe one thing and a lot of people believe another, and that has a lot to do with the computer. The computer brought Napster, and people go on YouTube and see your music for free, and you hardly get paid for it. Technology does strange things. You just have to adjust.
It’s strange times, that’s all I can say. I’m 71. I grew up when they were bombing churches when I was a little kid. It’s been a whole process of us going forward and all of a sudden going backwards. It’s pretty weird. What the heck happened? I just figure if I just do my music and am sending out messages, maybe it helps a little bit. I’m not a protest singer, but I just send out my messages.
Interview by Meghan Roos