Acclaimed bluesman to perform at The Lariat

“Otis Taylor is arguably the most relevant blues artist of our time” (Guitar Player magazine).

Otis Taylor’s upcoming performance 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, at The Lariat ranks with John Popper’s New Year’s Eve show atop the list of significant concerts in Buena Vista. In other words, don’t procrastinate or tickets will be gone. After all, Taylor has played onstage and in the studio with musicians who sell out shows at Red Rocks, musicians like Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Bill Nershi of The String Cheese Incident, Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy and legendary guitarist Tommy Bolin.

Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948, and his family moved to Denver after his uncle was shot to death. With music fans for parents, Taylor developed an interest in blues and other roots music. “I was raised with jazz musicians,” Taylor says on his website.

“I started off playing banjo,” Taylor told The Ark Magazine. (He often practiced while riding a unicycle.) That was in 1964 at the age of 14. “I was gigging by ’65.” After learning the banjo, Taylor moved on to the guitar, then blues harmonica. At the age of 19, he went to London to perform, but this early stage of his music career only lasted about a decade.

“I quit music in the ’70s. I wasn’t happy and didn’t need the money. I had a little antiques business” that dealt in high-level American Indian art. “I also ran a bicycle team in the ’80s for four years.” (The team ranked fourth in the nation.) “The bike team sponsor opened a coffee house and called some friends to play. One of them was Kenny Passarelli. We went to high school together.”

With a bit of prodding, Passarelli coaxed Taylor to perform at the coffee house, where they were joined onstage by guitarist Eddie Turner. “I just followed (Kenny’s) cues,” said Taylor. The year was 1995, and the response to the show was so overwhelmingly positive that Taylor decided to return to the music scene, playing select dates with Passarelli and Turner.

Passarelli, by the way, is a legendary bassist, having performed with Elton John, Dan Fogelberg, Hall and Oates, Stephen Stills and Joe Walsh. He even co-wrote Walsh’s hit single “Rocky Mountain Way.” And Turner has received plenty of acclaim as well.

Since that 1995 show, Taylor has recorded 15 albums, earned more than a dozen music awards and received accolades as a songwriter, a lyricist, a vocalist and an instrumentalist. His music shows in up in Hollywood movies like Public Enemy, starring Johnny Depp, and Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg. Categorized as a blues artist, Taylor calls his music “trance blues,” and part of its appeal lies in its underlying simplicity.

Released this year, his latest album, Fantasizing about Being Black, combines new material with some older songs and features renowned dobro player Jerry Douglas and jazz trumpet player Ron Miles. “This album is more about black issues,” Taylor said. “I’m known for writing about black issues.”

Taylor’s 2001 album, White African, earned him four nominations for the W.C. Handy Award (now known as the Blues Music Award) and won him the award for Best New Artist Debut. The album explores the history of race relations and social injustices and addresses the lynching of Taylor’s great-grandfather and the death of his uncle.

On the title track of his 2013 album, My World is Gone, Taylor intones:

There’s a burnin’ tonight
Some crosses heal
And some crosses kill
They got crosses for love
They got crosses for hate

Guitarist JP Johnson, son of Lariat owner Court Johnson, played on two of Taylor’s albums and performed with Taylor on tour, as can be seen in videos of Holland’s 2011 North Sea Jazz Festival. “We played for about 5,000 people there. That day, I look at the schedule and see that John McLaughlin’s opening and we had to follow him. I thought, ‘Oh no. This is gonna suck,’ but it went really well. It was really cool. … Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks were playing there, and Derek sat in with us. …

“JP’s flying out to play with us for this show (at The Lariat). He’s a killer guitar player. … I’ve known JP since he was 15 … so this is a special concert to me. I’ve gotten to play with some of best lead guitar players. I’m known for my lead guitar players, and (JP’s) great. I’m a good scout. I’m good at finding those people who can play well and play with others.”

Taylor played at The Lariat last summer and said he and his band mates enjoyed the show but didn’t have much free time to hang out in Buena Vista due to a busy touring schedule. Nonetheless, “We’d like to keep it a tradition,” Taylor said.

Speaking of traditions, a few years ago Taylor started his popular Trance Blues Festival in Boulder, and the next festival is scheduled for Nov. 11. The event includes music workshops and performances featuring Taylor and several other professional musicians.

Taylor also spearheads a Blues in the Schools program he calls Writing the Blues, conceived by his wife, Carol. He appears at elementary schools and universities around the country to teach students about the blues.

“I start by asking them to write down what makes them sad,” Taylor writes on his website. “It is just amazing to see some of these nuggets, these incredible thoughts. They are often simple sentences but so real, so sad, so true, so pure.” The program allows Taylor to connect with others and help them connect with themselves. It’s also a way for him to help ensure that the blues will continue.


Taylor and Johnson perform “Hey Joe” at the 2011 North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland.