"Respect the Dead"

NorthernBlues The first thing you hear on Otis Taylor's new album, "Respect the Dead," is a plunking banjo, sounding more African than Appalachian. The second thing you hear is a man singing about sitting in a fallout shelter, thinking about the slaves who crossed the ocean just like the missile that struck his city. Before long, that opening track, "Ten Million Slaves," also contains a throbbing electric bass, an ominous electric guitar and a woman's wailing, wordless voice.

This is not your typical blues album.

Taylor -- who writes the songs, sings the leads and plays the banjo and mandolin -- has injected new life into the beleaguered genre by forsaking the conventions of the present for the traditions of the past and the innovations of the future. Bassist Kenny Passarelli, who produced and arranged the album, has helped Taylor link the droning, acoustic sounds of pre-World War II blues to the trance-like, amplified sounds of today's dance music. The absence of percussion gives this fusion an eerie, hollow intimacy that's quite effective.

Taylor does something similar as a songwriter. He writes about past events -- the Jim Crow South, World War II, the civil rights movement -- from the perspective of the present, suggesting how their aftershocks can still be felt. Suggesting more than he states, he creates an unsettling emptiness in his stories that fits the music perfectly.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Tuesday at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Otis Taylor, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8131. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)