Otis Taylor: Hey Joe Opus | Red Meat
Octave Records OCT-0003
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Review by Mark Werlin - December 9, 2020
A blues album recorded in original DSD and released on SACD is a rare event, and an album as good as Hey Joe Opus | Red Meat is cause for celebration.
The musical career of Otis Taylor didn’t follow the usual course. The Chicago-born singer-songwriter, guitarist and banjoist took 20 years off from performing to establish a fine arts business and start up an African-American bicycle racing team. His return to professional music began with local performances and soon drew the attention of Telarc Records.
Taylor’s commitment to create music that blends traditional folk and blues ingredients with non-Western drone flavors, and to write concept albums that unflinchingly confront the troubled history of Black people in America, sets him outside the commercial mainstream. He called a banjo summit of blues players Keb’Mo’, Corey Harris and Alvin “Youngblood” Hart in a collaboration documented on the album “Recapturing the Banjo” on Telarc. He instituted an annual blues music festival in Boulder, and following his years with Telarc, started his own record label, Trance Music Festival.
A couple of years ago, the Boulder, Colorado audio manufacturer PS Audio, which designs and builds DSD DACs, preamplifiers and power amplifiers of very high quality and critical repute, launched Octave Records, an in-house SACD label, using the Sonoma multitrack DSD recording facility and mastering services of DSD pioneer Gus Skinas.
Hey Joe Opus was originally recorded at Immersive Sound, engineered and mixed by Mike Yach and mastered by David Glasser at Airshow Mastering. It was issued on CD in the US by Otis Taylor’s Trance Blues Festival label, and in Germany in an audiophile LP edition by the in-akustic label. The new SACD was remastered from the original DSD master mixes by Gus Skinas in pure DSD using the Octave Records’ DSDDirect Mastering process.
Reissuing the Otis Taylor album as an SACD and hi-res download brings an original-DSD recording to SACD collectors at a time when few non-classical albums are being recorded, much less released, in SACD format. What makes this SACD even more unusual is the inclusion of a second version of the album: a DSD “needle-drop” of the 45 RPM metal masters of the in-akustic LP version. That allows listeners to hear, as closely as possible in the digital domain, a replica of the now out-of-print LP version alongside the newly remastered DSD version.
The two masterings, as might be expected, sound very similar. There is a slightly fuller low bass emphasis in the DSD version, and the snare drum hits and picked guitar strings have a bit more snap on the LP version. The album runs about 45 minutes in length, and the songs are intended to be heard as a continuous suite, so it’s advisable to listen to each presentation in full.
The suite of pieces that comprise the album deconstructs the Billy Roberts song “Hey Joe”, by presenting it three times: first, in a rock-oriented version with a searing solo by Government Mule guitarist Warren Haynes; second, in an instrumental version that frames the cornet of Ron Miles over the chord progression of the song, retitled “They Wore Blue”; and finally, in an acoustic folk-style arrangement with vocalist Langhorne Slim joining Taylor. An original song by Taylor, “Sunday Morning”, is presented in three sections interspersed with the three versions of “Hey Joe” and the other original songs. The effect created is a kind of sound tapestry, with recurring motifs and patterns that take on different shades of meaning and emotional impact in relation to the other parts of the album. The melancholy sound of violinist Anne Harris evokes the string bands that travelled rural Black communities in the era before the migration North.
Taylor’s gruff voice, with its tone of weary acceptance, neither celebrates nor condemns the violence towards women that made “Hey Joe” so controversial at the time of Jimi Hendrix’s recording. Likewise, in Taylor's original song “Peggy Lee”, the narrator dispassionately observes that a young man’s decision to transition to female is final and irreversible; both characters commit actions that cannot be undone.
This limited edition SACD, a must-have for blues lovers and DSD fans, is available on the PS Audio website.
Copyright © 2020 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net