[22 July 2010]
With a lengthy career spanning not only several genres, but several instruments (the banjo, guitar, and harmonica being chief among them), Taylor has taken a strange path to come to blues celebrity. That’s not to say that he’s the B.B. King of the banjo, but following his contribution of two songs to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, as well as a 2000 Sundance Festival composition fellowship, the world has become progressively more exposed to Taylor’s uncanny blend of blues, bluegrass, and country.
Despite a varied and prolific musical career, Taylor didn’t release a solo record until 1995’s When Negroes Walked the Earth, and his career since then has been a wandering (some critics might say meandering) journey. His music itself often reflects Taylor’s personal history and uniquely American experience: it’s an often-eerie blend of Southern tradition and Western roots (reflective of Taylor’s childhood in Denver, Colorado).
And so the enigmatic title of his latest record should come as no surprise to fans of Taylor’s eccentric style (technically, it’s a reference to the recently discovered remains of a Paleo-Indian civilization not far from Taylor’s Boulder, Colorado, home). But the title is incidental; what really matters, as always, is Taylor’s consistently high-quality mix of blues, jazz, and bluegrass. Intricately written, veering from Chicago blues to soul in the same song, the same line sometimes, Taylor’s songs are always unmistakable. Clovis People, Vol. 3 is no exception.
Propelled first and foremost by Taylor’s extraordinary vocals, sometimes wailing, sometimes whispering, Clovis People is a welcome addition to Taylor’s discography, even if it doesn’t wildly diverge from earlier records. The jazzy “Hands on Your Stomach” swings and turns into the funk-and-blues driven “Harry, Turn the Music Up”, a tribute to the Denver Folklore Center, where Taylor often found himself as a child in the 1960s. While Taylor’s often gruff vocals make even the most straightforward blues numbers seem unexpectedly dire (take “Ain’t No Cowgirl”, for example), his electric spin on “trance” blues is always captivating, if not exactly lighthearted. The mournful “Past Times” is similarly solemn (“Don’t know how long I have before I’m gone”, Taylor sighs), but genuinely touching.
Taylor’s music is often linked to his vision of the African-American experience, and so his mournful croak of “There’s no color—there’s no difference” on “Lee and Arnaz” sounds not hopeful, but bitter. On Clovis People, Vol. 3, Taylor sings with a kind of weary resignation that sounds more reminiscent of Dylan’s Oh Mercy than his usual banjo-plucking.
Always listenable, even at his weakest (and really, there’s no weak track on this album), Taylor also has the good sense to recruit a stellar set of supporting figures, from steel guitarist Chuck Campbell, member of the veteran gospel group the Campbell Brothers, to guitarist Gary Moore, a regular session player with Taylor. While the name on the marquee is the main attraction, and it takes a lot to compete with Taylor’s mournful pipes (on “Coffee Woman”, he reminds us exactly why this is his show), Taylor knows when to let the boys in the back take over. On the sweet and lovely “She’s Ice in the Desert”, cornettist Ron Miles creates the kind of smoky atmosphere that would play just right in any side-of-the-road jazz club.
Taylor’s individual albums contain so much variety that you never object to the seeming lack of diversity among those albums as whole. “It’s Done Happened Again” could easily be from 2002’s Respect the Dead, even if he’s lost some of the rougher folk edges from his earlier work. But the sweeping variety of Clovis People, Vol. 3 itself allows for the work to seem recklessly whole and yet impossibly vibrant. Rich, mysterious, and inscrutable, Clovis People may lack some of the wildness of Respect the Dead or When Negroes Walked the Earth, but it more than stands on its own.