I have a couple of words for those who staggered out of the Shuggie Otis show less than an hour into the proceedings, politely holding the door for the like-minded strangers streaming behind them: Screw you. What did you show up expecting to see? Did you want to hear a barrage of 40 year-old hits played by a preserved soul legend? Or something approaching reality? Did you want a set that pulled together influences both new and old with an emphasis on a long-term legacy with a nod towards the ticket-buying public? Or a soulful time capsule that bowed to songs that 90% of the audience wasn't alive to appreciate when they first hit the airwaves?
Shuggie Otis is Los Angeles music royalty. His father, Johnny Otis, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 90, was an R&B legend who helped bring the world Etta James and the Hand Jive while his father-in-law, Gerald Wilson, is an encyclopedia of the most important developments in jazz since 1939. Shuggie's performance last night hovered somewhere amid the past the future, acknowledging his soulful heritage while dipping into a blues-drenched familiarity that united father, son and holy ghost.
Otis is now 59 and has only released 4 LPS, unofficially announcing his retirement before the age of 25. The Brothers Johnson covered “Strawberry Letter No. 23” in 1977, solidifying Otis' closest claim to a radio hit. Since then he has lived a life of obscurity and a couple of failed comeback attempts.
Har Mar Superstar had this tweet less than an hour into the show:
@harmarsuperstar: RT if the Shuggie Otis show ruined your life tonight.
Ruined your life? Why? Cause he didn't play Strawberry Letter No. 23 for twenty minutes? Or because he wrestled with a faulty amplifier?
For much of the first half hour, Otis stood with his back to the stage, fiddling with a giant stack of amplifiers. He addressed the crowd a couple of times, blaming his underwhelming performance on a poor guitar sound. It seemed like a cop out. He even interrupted a tune midway to announce “You should get your money back.” This is the last thing a paying audience wants to hear and, indeed, at this point it felt like all was lost. Had Otis left the stage at that point, the crowd would have quietly walked off. But he didn't.
Instead, he returned with a slow simmering blues number that highlighted his chops, summoning B.B. Kings' Lucille and Albert King's Flying V in equal measure. Otis easily settled into the role of solemn bluesman, working his axe over a shrill Hammond organ and unrelenting feedback. Following that tune, he requested a house amp from the sound crew to no avail, provoking hoots and hollers from the audience.
Undeterred, Otis continued his set, mentioning band members' birthdays including his son Lucky, who was doubling on guitar.
Eventually, Otis even broached “Strawberry Letter No. 23,” referring to it as “a song made famous by the Brothers Johnson.” The crowd naturally lost its shit as he dug into the repeating riff that spiraled into a psychedelic maelstrom as his six-person crew of veterans churned behind him.
Although Otis started forty minutes late, he opened with classics “Inspiration Information” and “Aht Uh Mi Hed.” That alone should have been enough to satisfy the sold-out crowd. But he continued forward, proving himself the heir to the Otis family throne as a straight-forward blues showman with an unwavering control of the six-string guitar. Too bad for those who left early.
Personal Bias: I like a meltdown as much as the next person.
The Crowd: Varied but hovering mostly in the 20 and 30 year old scenester demographic.
Random Notebook Dump: I knew the night was over when I caught Johnny Rotten checking out my wife dancing to the post-show rocksteady offerings.