Wanamaker Recording Company [Release date 17.02.14]
Otis Gibbs is a socio-politico story teller who infuses his blue collar characters with enough real urban grit for you to care about their trials and tribulations. He’s also recalls autobiographical stories and his phrasing is a mix of Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Cash and Woody Guthry all rolled into one.
The stories are uniquely his own and are delivered with a weathered emotive voice with enough clarity of diction to enunciate lyrical meaning and as with all good story tellers he has an ability to draw the listener in.
He opens with a short banjo and fiddle led instrumental intro to ‘Cozmina’, on a tale inspired by the stories of a nine year old hitchhiker he picked up in the Carpathian Mountainsin Romania. His startling lyrical imagery delivers the first of several defining emotive lines: ‘Youngest child of 9, daddy died in a coalmine’.
The pedal steel infused ‘Ghosts of Our Fathers’ recounts the hard life of his next door neighbour, a former boxer and his son who was drafted and subsequently died in Vietnam. It’s an album highlight, with a chorus that hangs on the closing refrain: ‘How to carry on when your hardest punch is thrown, take away the burden from my shoulders.’
It’s great example of his story telling technique which draws you in via minimalist arrangements and then leaves you to ponder the lyrical imagery with a perfunctory finish.
Otis reels off the stories in the manner others fire off solos, as he leans on the gentle brush strokes and pedal steel arrangement of the poignant and self explanatory titled ‘Back in My Days Blues.’
Perhaps his greatest ability is that of giving an unremarkable train-time song such as ‘If I Was a Train’ an extra lift by his expressive lyrics that convey feel, time, space and mood: ‘As we rode off to the sound of box car grease. Filthy dirty cloud blacked out the sun for 20 miles.’
The banjo led ‘Darker Side of Me’ reflects on the life of an itinerant worker who works hard, doesn’t get paid and reverts to the ‘Darker Side Of Me’ in the song title, while the autobiographical ‘No Rust on My Spade’ recalls the dubious joys of manual labour, specifically tree planting.
The album title comes from a phrase handed down by his father and its wholly apt, as the focus of the album is on lyrical reflection, with the Amy Lashley penned, harmony inflected waltz ‘Wrong Side of Gallatin’ offering welcome musical variety.
‘Kokomo Blues’ reverts to pedal steel, brushed strokes and an emotive vocals. By this stage you’ve either bought into his story telling mode or you’ve baled. Sticking the full course brings much reward. ***
Review by Pete Feenstra
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