Though Otis Taylor’s lyrics probe the darker aspects of the human condition, he couches his stark imagery in intricately layered aural textures that bespeak a questing, sometimes even optimistic spirit. Many of his compositions have an African tinge–they’re based on single-chord drones or elemental chord changes, driven by throbbing grooves and intensified by Taylor’s energetic picking on a variety of fretted instruments. On “Babies Don’t Lie,” from 2003’s Truth Is Not Fiction (Telarc), his taut banjo patterns bring to mind the West African kora, and his exhortations to his bandmates–“Jump on it! Ha!”–have a shamanic intensity. “Walk on Water” is goaded by a percussive, fuzz-bass pattern that sounds like a talking drum. The disc’s bookends are folkish in a more American vein: “Rosa, Rosa,” an acoustic steel guitar-driven tribute to Rosa Parks, and “Baby Please Don’t Go,” a raucous reprise of the Big Joe Williams classic. Much of the set is thematically harrowing: in “Kitchen Towel” an uprooted Native American family chooses suicide over returning to the reservation; “Past Times” depicts a terminally ill man yearning for death. And Taylor delivers “House of the Crosses”–about a Russian prison guard who learns that his mother was the victim of an incarcerated rapist, his natural father–in a voice clotted with blood and pain that eventually subsides into a whisper. Habib Koite & Bamada (see Spot Check) headline. Friday, February 20, 7:30 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.