Written By: Aaron Leitko
Most musicians would kill to have Shuggie Otis’s catalogue. His career? Not so much.
A child blues guitar prodigy and R&B visionary, Otis pioneered a lush and ethereal style of psychedelic soul. By the mid-’70s he had released three albums, penned a bona fide hit (“Strawberry Letter 23”) and, allegedly, declined a gig as touring guitarist with the Rolling Stones. But within a few years he was dropped by his label and receded into anonymity.
Now, he’s back. Again. On Sunday night, Otis performed a 90-minute show at the Howard Theatre, backed by an eight-piece band that included his brother on drums and his son on rhythm guitar. The first 30 minutes of the set had a number of unpolished moments. Otis fumbled with his effects pedals, then his amp, and then his guitar, interrupting songs with bursts of static and distortion while he nervously fiddled with his sound. At one moment, his keyboard player’s eyes went wide when Otis began soloing at ear-splitting, Hendrix-level volumes during the otherwise bucolic and chilled-out ballad “Island Letter.”
Still, stacked up against some of the other reclusive and recently unearthed personalities of the psychedelic era — Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson among them — Otis was in good form. His voice has lost some of its range and mellow tone, but he’s still a competent guitarist.
This is Otis’s second run at a reboot. In 2001, Luaka Bop, a record label run by former Talking Heads singer David Byrne, reissued his third and best LP, “Inspiration Information,” to great acclaim. Appearing live, he didn’t fare quite as well. Reviews of a single date at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium described Otis’s set as a shambles, with him barely able to make it through a single song, aimlessly wandering between instruments. Not long afterward, he receded back into the ether.
Earlier this month, Sony Music gave “Inspiration Information” a second reissue treatment, this time pairing it with an album’s worth of unreleased material recorded during the decades that Otis has spent off the grid. Although the album was a commercial failure upon its release, it has gradually accrued a dedicated cult through the endorsements of more-famous musicians, who have emulated its production style or sampled its riffs for their own compositions.
A large part of the album’s allure is its hazy, washed-out sound. Rich melodies and chord progressions are framed in lush orchestrations and wishy-washy swirls of effects. The best songs sound as if they drifted out of an alternate R&B future that never came to pass.
Rather than attempt to recapture that woozy character, Otis’s band performed updated arrangements that played up the music’s funky elements and left ample room for extended solos. Performing the older material, the guitarist appeared nervous, and at times he struggled with the more intricate, pre-composed guitar parts.
It was when the band stepped away from his “hits” to play a few straightforward blues tunes that he seemed to find his groove. It was not the genre-bending blend of fusion jazz, R&B and psychedelic rock that people came to hear, but it seemed to help Otis loosen up. By the time the band arrived at the set closer, “Ice Cold Daydream,” he was newly engaged, delivering a long, noisy solo that recaptured some of the ecstatic spark of his ’70s self.
Leitko is a freelance writer.
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