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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Live Review - Shuggie Otis

London Jazz Cafe
November 20 2012

So, another day, another one of "those" gigs then. Where would we be without the occasional reclusive legend to appear out of nowhere and jolt us to our senses by the very dint of their continued existence? Well, at home in the warm, for one thing. But I digress...

Shuggie Otis, for those not in the know, is the definition of a cult (stop sniggering, I said CULT!). Son of R'n'B peer Johnny Otis, he apprenticed with his dad's band, then made (between 1969 and 1974) three of the finest albums of funk-rock/psych soul ever released, wrote hits for a few other people, played with Zappa and the Mothers for a bit, and then promptly disappeared off the very face of the earth. 

When I worked at Flashback Records in the early 00s, and the tintraweb was still in its relative infancy, we were all convinced he was dead. How wrong we were. Not only that, but he's only 59. In today's terms, considering that the band I saw the previous night featured two septagenarians on lead vocals, that makes him a positive youngster. And, despite some greying strands and a slightly more sallow, drawn physiog, doesn't he look it too? Actually, more than that- with his jodphurs, frock coat, white blouse and frilled trousers, he's an utter dandy, resembling more than anything else a mixed-race Peter Wyngarde. Except with exemplary guitar playing talent and slightly less moustache.

That is, when he eventually appears. From my vantage point, I'd actually spotted him up in the balcony some time back, but I was beginning to think he'd never get onstage. Then again, a man who hasn't been out front live in almost 40 years is bound to require a little warming up before getting up there to do his 'thang', and, true to form, the first thing he does after striding down the stairs to rapt applause and plugging in his axe (itself suffering some amplification issues) is bump his head on the microphone and become entangled in his own backline. Todd Rundgren was right two years ago - this stage is too bloody small. As the Shugster (as he was never known by anyone until now) finally gets under way with 'Comin' Home Baby' and, cue another tumultuous roar of awe, 'Inspiration Information', there's a touch of hesitation not only from the audience (will he? won't he? Is that really him?) but the man himself - as is only to be expected given how much he's shied away for many years from public performance, and he does seem genuinely uncomfortable to be onstage and so close to so many adoring people.

Slowly but surely, and backed by the perfect polyrhythms of jazzmeister Marvin 'Smitty' Smith, he begins to find himself. The high notes beginning to rise with more confidence on 'Island Letter' and new number 'Trying To Get Close To You', a preview from the forthcoming album (third roar!) which, I can happily report, doesn't suck, does sound like proper vintage Shuggie, and hasn't 'gone all Mark Ronson' on us. Thank fuck for small mercies. Why, then, he chooses to follow this with a slow, plodding blues that causes the audience's attention to wander (except during the instrumental breaks) is beyond me, but by now I'm beginning to realise that part of the Otis enigma is this very deliberate awakwardness, and an unwillingness to pander to expectations. Which explains the lack of a followup to such a well-regarded album as Inspiration Information for almost 40 years. The misdemeanour is quickly forgotten - 'Sparkle City' brings us back up to speed, and 'Aht Uh Mi Hed', still possibly his most scintillating composition, shimmers in the way it should, eliciting several aaahs and oohs from those assembled. Timing is everything, and placing these two together is a masterstroke - theoretically speaking of course.

In truth, however, the latter lacks the motorised electronic beat or the chilling strings of the original, and he's still singing slightly flat. Yet, by the time we get to an almost Leonard Cohen-like acoustic section (which literally makes us feel we're atop some lofty peak in far off Texas watching the tumbleweed blow past the coyotes) and 'Wings Of Love', another track from the upcoming album, I've decided to overlook this and just remember that I like him very much. Not only is his guitar playing matchless in this sub-genre, but the woodwind and horn solos (from Albert Wing and Michael Turre in particular) are also outstanding, deploying the sort of wooded textures heard and loved everywhere from Neil Ardley's Kaleidoscope Of Rainbows to the incidental music from The Good Life. And now, at last, the Shug looks happy to be onstage.

Just as well too, showtime's nearly over. 'Doin It Right', followed by the inevitable 'Strawberry Letter 23' (still a classic, but again, maybe galling to a man who has to take stock of the fact that after all these years, his best known tune is by somebody else) and 'Ice Cold Daydream' bring a troubled but eventually triumphant set to a close, with everybody who was once afraid of moving now firmly grooving: if Otis can keep up this particular impetus (I hear UK dates are already being pencilled in, for 2013, in larger venues) and marshall his strengths, this comeback could effectively, like that of Bill Fay, run, run and run. Plus, we need a new name in the soul frame now Terry Callier has bitten the dust, so why not one that just happens to be a god among guitarists? Shuggie Otis, despite his inevitable feet of clay as a cult idol, and with his earlier indulgences behind him, is still an inspiration and a source of information to many.

Surveying his victory (or should that be triumph over adversity?) he nods, shakes hands (including mine) and dashes back upstairs, leaving us to ponder what, where or when next: but at the end of the day, only he can make that decision. Oh, and what is it with McEnery brothers lookalikes this week? First a Peter at Gong, and now, in this audience, a John- bellowing away to his heart's content. Stop following me already!!!

Darius Drewe Shimon

1 comment:

  1. Here's a sweet vid about the project you might be interested in!:) http://smarturl.it/Inspiration_Wings