Although unintended, there was more than a little irony in Otis Taylor’s statement, “It’s so quiet in here, it sounds like church.” Taylor, jointly presented by Maxx Music, the Visulite Theatre, and the N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, played to a crowd of just over 100 at Spirit Square’s McGlohon Theatre. It was his first show in Charlotte.
The first irony, of course, is that the McGlohon Theatre is a church – or at least was. The gem of a space is a converted sanctuary, with the lovely stained glass windows still intact. The second irony was that the amplification of Taylor’s four-piece band was cranked up to an ear-splitting level. If this was church, then all the angels of Heaven and the demons of Hell would be forced to listen.
The 730-seat McGlohon Theatre is one of Charlotte finest venues for music – beautiful, intimate, with good acoustics. Over the past several years Maxx Music, in partnership with the Blumenthal Center and occasionally the Visulite, has brought excellent musicians of almost every style and genre to the theater, enriching Charlotte’s music scene perhaps more than any other presenter. It is unfortunate that the sound technicians – or Taylor, himself – had wired, plugged, and amped for a stadium rather than a listening room.
Otis Taylor is among the most important living blues musicians. Born in the blues town of Chicago in 1948, he moved as a child to Denver, Colorado – a city that does not readily come to mind when one thinks of the blues. But the young Otis found his way to Denver’s folklore center, where he picked up the banjo and encountered the music of players such as the great Mississippi John Hurt. He eventually added guitar, mandolin and harmonica to his talents and started a band, but left music in the late 1970s and did not return to performing until 1995.
In the past 15 years, he has made up for lost time, issuing nearly a dozen albums and winning numerous awards, including Downbeat Magazine’s “Best Blues Album” of the year five times. He has explored a wide range of blues and roots music, as well as psychedelic rock, and his ensembles often include fiddle and cello. In addition, he has become a powerful voice in the Black banjo revival that has inspired young musicians such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
For his June 16 show, Taylor brought a small band – bass, guitar, drums, and his own collection of guitar, banjo, and harmonica. The set opened without Taylor. Lead guitarist Jon Paul Johnson, with his brother on bass and Larry Thompson on drums, launched into a great 12-bar electric blues. Although young, Johnson is obviously talented and well-versed in the blues language, and his inventive solos paid homage to those of B.B. King in tone (a perfect command of vibrato and the bending of notes) and style.
But the blues tribute ended there. Taylor chose to focus almost exclusively on blues-inflected rock, playing throbbing songs that hovered around one, or maybe two chords, regardless of whether he played the banjo or electric guitar. It wasn’t really the choice of songs as much as the renditions performed. “Absinthe,” for example, which on the album Recapturing the Banjo has a rootsy and contrapuntal feel with instruments layering and interjecting their voices, here was turned into a monochromatic drone of loud electricity. “Think I Won’t,” which on Taylor’s newest album, Clovis People, features spare percussion and a haunting fiddle line, instead pounded and clattered. In short, the range of Taylor’s work – eclectic, ironic, sometimes subtle and sometimes ferocious – was narrowed into monotony.
Taylor has a well worn gravelly John Lee Hooker blues voice and a dry, wry humor that serves him well as an entertainer. The highlight of the show was when he whipped out his harmonica and led the audience in a lively version of “Mockingbird,” urging the crowd to yell “hambone” in response to his call. Unfortunately, by then, the unbearable volume had driven me and my ringing ears into the theater’s antechamber.