Shuggie Otis at the Kessler, 10.4.2013
Back in '72, when I first got wind of Shuggie Otis via a Jeff Beck interview in Rolling Stone and his then-current LP Freedom Flight, I never dreamed I'd be seeing Shuggie in the flesh 40 years later. A legendary cat: Started as a teen playing guitar with his dad, West Coast R&B maven Johnny Otis (a Greek who passed for black); recorded with Frank Zappa and Al Kooper; on his own, made records that combined blues with a laid-back studio R&B that sat somewhere between There's A Riot Goin' On-era Sly and early Prince.
Freedom Flight's "Strawberry Letter 23" was famously covered by the Brothers Johnson, but before then, Shuggie's follow-up album Inspiration Information -- recorded painstakingly over three years, with Otis playing everything but strings and horns -- sank without a trace, and he lost his recording contract. In the '90s, Inspiration Information gained a cult following, and in 2001, it was re-released (augmented with some cuts from Freedom Flight) on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label. In April this year, it was reissued yet again in a 2CD version that included a second disc of previously-unheard material, Wings of Love, that Shuggie cut between 1975 and now.
Shuggie's playing at Austin City Limits, but on the way, he stopped off at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff for a stunning surprise of a show that presented a varied set of material, backed by a crack band that included his son on drums, a cousin from NYC on keys, a bassist (James Manning) who almost took the show with his firmly authoritative snapping and popping, and a three-piece horn section including an altoist (Albert Wing) from Frank Zappa's last touring band.
Shuggie's thinner and more frail-looking than he appears in his publicity shots, but he delivers the goods, singing in a smooth and surprisingly youthful-sounding voice, making minimal announcements between songs, and seeming to withdraw to another world when he's deep into his solos. His funk tunes are beautifully orchestrated and the band dynamic really brings them to life, lending them a depth and dimension that the studio versions only hinted at. His blues is surprisingly in-your-face and immediate, reminiscent of Albert Collins in his Alligator days (guitarist Jim Suhler was watching from a seat front-and-center, directly in front of Shuggie).
Otis played a Les Paul for most of the set, getting a sharp, biting tone even from the neck pickup. He can rip through scalar runs like a jazzman, but then he'll pull off an Albert King two-whole-step bend that just slays. Some of his later material (the title track from "Wings of Love," f'rinstance) is almost Todd Rundgren-ish in its chord progressions -- prog-rock soul. The crowd went most apeshit for "Ahut Uh Mi Hed," but I was happiest to hear "Ice Cold Daydream," the opening track from Freedom Flight. Of course, he couldn't get out of the building without playing "Strawberry Letter 23," then the band locked into a titanic groove of P-Funk dimensions, and after an extended feedback-and-whammy bar exorcism (with trumpeter/bandleader/MC Larry Douglas whipping the crowd to a frenzy), Shuggie was out.
The best shows are like wish fulfillment. For me, this one was like that on a few different levels.