In November 2010, Otis Taylor, Boulder’s grizzled guitar-wielding and banjo-slinging statesman of the blues, found himself with some rare time off between bouts of playing his signature trance blues in Europe. The 11-time Blues Music Awards nominee decided to bring to reality an idea he’d been kicking around for awhile: Host an inclusive workshop teaching people how to play his style of music. If it’s successful, then build on it. If not, no harm done.
It was an instant success. The workshop quickly sold out, and on Nov. 28 of last year, about 50 people grabbed instruments and gathered in a conference room at the Boulder Outlook Hotel to absorb Taylor’s music and wisdom. Led by a band of pros that included bass, drums, djembe and more, Taylor soon had the entire room joining in playing a basic blues shuffle (“the heartbeat,” he called it), and soon he was telling stories, talking music and soloing intermittently over the hypnotic sounds emanating from the dozens of instruments.
“At the end, there was this feeling,” Taylor says, sitting on a metal folding chair in his living room. "People left with a better feeling after the workshop than they did my concerts.”
Encouraged, the 63-year-old Taylor developed the festival into a three-day gala this year, bagging dozens of local sponsorships and recruiting a top-notch group of musicians to lead workshops over Thanksgiving weekend. Joining him this year will be Muddy Waters’ longtime sideman Bob Margolin, influential banjo master Tony Trischka, Native American blues-rocker Mato Nanji of the band Indigenous, the legendary funk bass stylist George Porter Jr., Creole axe-man Don Vappie, and Taylor’s bass-slinging daughter, Cassie Taylor.
Taylor’s music recalls the one-chord blues drones of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but the musicians he has invited to the workshops play a wider range of styles. Porter, for example, is a legend of New Orleans funk. Trischka is a bluegrass master. Margolin is known for traditional blues guitar. The way these styles blend, and the way these musicians choose to teach the workshops, is bound to be one of the most fascinating — and educational — aspects of the weekend. Taylor’s being intentionally tight-lipped with the musicians, preferring to let them lead their own way when they get here.
“It’s like, how would you put your bluegrass banjo on top of this music, how would you use your lead guitar?” Taylor says. “I’ll be able to mix it really easy, and it’s educational for people. And it’s fun.”
Margolin is upbeat about the stylistic experimentation to come. He loves the format and is relishing the chance to play with such different players.
“I think that’s going to add a lot of different textures to everything,” he says. “Tony Trischka is just a master of a banjo, and for me, personally, I’m just not in that world, musically. I think it’s going to be very different to hear what he and Otis do using that very percussive yet toneful instrument. George Porter Jr. is literally one of the legends of the kind of music that he plays, and I will be awed and inspired to just be anywhere near him.”
Taylor has packed the weekend with activities.
Friday, Nov. 25, will feature two events: an electric jam at the Outlook and an acoustic one at The Sink, workshop for kids at the Boulder Outlook Taylor says. (The electric jam will be like a big circle, with people trading solos, and the acoustic jam will be a more inclusive, workshop-style event, he says.)
On Saturday, participants will either play in a workshop with Taylor or some of the visiting artists in the morning, and then switch teachers for the afternoon.
The big jam happens on Saturday night at the Boulder Theater. Participants will bring their instruments to the first floor, and Taylor and the visiting artists will play from the stage.
Taylor stresses that musicians of all skill levels are welcome to join, and not just guitar players — he’s looking for bagpipers, horn players and the woman who hasn’t touched her violin since high school. He’s dedicated to the group, not the individual sound, he says, and he wants to bring musicians together who wouldn’t normally play with one another.
“You want to sing good, sing good. You want to sing bad, sing bad. Bad’s almost better than good. They’re almost better because they’re expressing themselves in a way they never have before,” Taylor says.
If the festival goes well this year, then Taylor wants to expand it to different cities, maybe even overseas. It’s not about ticket sales, he says. He wants to lasso enough local sponsorships to bring the cost of the workshop down to zero so that everyone who wants to can participate.
Margolin, who appears behind Muddy Waters during his performance in The Last Waltz, expects profound results.
“I’m kind of tickled that he chose me for it,” he says. “I always try to connect with an audience at my gigs, and I think this will turn out to be at the very least a different kind of connection, maybe even a deeper one.”
The New Orleans-based Porter is eager to contribute however he can to the musical jambalaya, though he says he has no idea yet what that will require of him. Taylor reached out to him in July, and he hasn’t heard much since.
“I’m not sure how I’d fit in. But he called me, and I said yes,” Porter says. “You know, my bass playing probably has to do with what’s needed. I can be a lead player, or I actually prefer being a pocket person, the guy who sticks with the drummer at home, so everyone can get back to me. It depends on the configuration of the music.”
“I’m going with a very, very open attitude,” Margolin says. “A lot of why I’m really excited about this is because it’s going to be different from what I usually do, and I don’t know what it is. I’m going to have to be creative in that moment, and I hope that something good’s going to come out of it. I can’t imagine what it will be yet, to be honest.”
On the Bill:
Tickets for all of Saturday’s events and workshops are $80, and tickets for just the Boulder Theater show are $40. Those who want to listen and not participate in the Boulder Theater show can sit in the balcony for $20. On Sunday, Nov. 27, Cassie Taylor will lead a Hotel. Tickets are $50 for adults and $25 for kids. For more information visit trancebluesfestival.com.