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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 05:50 am

A contrast in blues

Otis Taylor Ambassador Ballroom, Hilton Springfield. Sunday, 7 p.m.

Otis Taylor plays the blues. The hurtin' blues, not happy, well-polished, barroom blues for the beer swigging, fun-loving crowd. He sings of lynchings, dying children, murder, race relations, social problems, and other incidents of life not always covered in the "I-got-the-blues-so-bad-but-not-that-bad" whitewashed versions popularized by rock bands parading as blues purveyors.

After a brief stab at music in the '70s, Taylor got out of the "biz." In 1995 he returned with a full-fledged attack of intensity and honesty. After two CDs, several years of touring, and plenty of praise from fans and critics alike, he earned four W.C. Handy nominations and won the award for Best New Artist Debut for his 2001 release, White African. His newest CD, Truth is not Fiction, has been picked by critics at the Washington Post and New York Times as one of the top ten albums of 2003, and was chosen by Borders Bookstores and Amazon.com as the best blues album of the year.

In his capital city show at the Hilton this Sunday, Taylor will sail solo, as will local blues singer-songwriter Scott "Lil' Egypt" Simpson, who opens the performance. Simpson has developed a "one-man-band" routine, playing a bass drum to augment his primal blues rhythms, while simultaneously accompanying himself on guitar. He caught the southern Illinois nickname from the elder blues statesmen he has been hanging out with the past few years at festivals in Memphis, Mississippi, and other parts below the Mason-Dixon line. "They pinned it on me down there last year because I told them I was from Illinois and the closest thing to Illinois they knew was, 'Lil' Egypt' so it stuck," says Simpson. "They have no concept of cornfields and still don't like Lincoln very much." This June he has the great honor of performing at the Howlin' Wolf Museum dedication in West Point, Miss.

The good folks at MICE (Music in Communities and Education) brought Taylor to town to help raise funds for their school music programs. Lisa Rusher, the driving force behind MICE, recently promoted an Eric Bibb show and has John Renbourn on the schedule for April. "Education is the first and foremost priority," says Rusher. "These community concerts allow us to bring in artists who will do schools, too." And help pay for them. In fact the proceeds from the Sunday evening concert will help fund Taylor's Monday morning concert at Douglas School.

Taylor tours whenever and wherever he can, and has a special spot in his heart for Blues in the Schools programs. He calls it "a hands-on approach to ensuring that the blues, and the ability to share life experiences, will continue in the next generation."

Otis Taylor plays his hard-edged traditional blues with special guest Scott "Lil' Egypt" Simpson 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 15, at the Ambassador Ballroom in the Hilton Springfield, 700 E. Adams St. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door and are available at Recycled Records, 787-3316 or at www.musicincommunitieseducation.org

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