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REVIEW: Shuggie Otis Revels In His Second Chance

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 17, 2013 7:30PM

When David Byrne released Shuggie Otis’s lost 1974 album Inspiration Information on his Luaka Bop label in 2001, it propelled Otis to the ranks of legendary musical recluses like Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett and Sly Stone. Except that, according to Otis, he never really went into hiding.

In a New York Times profile, Otis said, “There’s a misconception that I actually quit, but I always wanted to work.” Another reissue of Inspiration Information Released by Epic Legacy Tuesday, packaged as a double album with a collection of unreleased tracks spanning the years 1977 to 2000 called Wings of Love, hints at other factors affecting Otis and how much work he actually put into his music over the years. Some songs, like the epic 11-minute title track, contain the lightning-in-a-bottle genius Otis captured with his 70s output, but the Wings of Love half of the double mostly play as a series of discarded B-sides, especially when compared to the perfect Inspiration Information.

Otis, the son of legendary blues bandleader Johnny Otis, also bristles at the notion he’s primarily a bluesman. Yet the blues is exactly where his band was rooted when they took the stage at Lincoln Hall Tuesday night. Otis, who’s been compared to Prince in the past, openly courted further parallels with his clothing, which wouldn’t be out of place at one of the Purple One’s shows (or at a fox hunt). Another comparison is Otis’s guitar playing. His guitar licks are as stinging, muscular and inventive as ever.

Otis’s vocals however, have suffered a bit from the ravages of time. His high tenor preserved on his 70s records is a bit more gravelly around the edges these days but, like any seasoned musician, he’s learned to turn weaknesses into strengths. Much of his set was centered on Inspiration Information and, in a live setting, one can hear how the songs from that album are rooted in the blues. A horn section provided tasteful accents on the title track and “Aht Uh My Hed,” while “Sparkle City” balanced the fine line between psychedelia and blues. Otis, for one night at least, seemed to embrace being a bluesman, which at least means he has an understanding of the town he was playing. The set built slowly to a soaring live version of “Wings of Love” before Otis and his band sent the crowd home happy with encores of “Strawberry Letter #23,” where he and his guitarist son, Erick, played dual lead guitar on that tracks’ fadeout solo, and a bombastic “Ice Cold Daydream” where Otis became a guitar hero, using every one of his extensive pedal setup to coax shrieks, dive bombing waves of feedback and echoes from his Gibson SG.

Otis got a major assist from Mike Reed. The drummer, programmer for Pitchfork Music Festival and owner of the new Constellation in Roscoe Village filled in for Otis’ son on drums for much of the set. Throughout the show, Otis was grateful for being onstage and graceful to the audience.

The law of averages says Shuggie Otis should not have a career in music at this stage of his life. To see him seizing the day like this should give people of any age motivation.

Shuggie Otis plays Lincoln Hall at 8 p.m. tonight, with Jesca Hoop opening and the East of Edens Soul Express spinning songs before, during and after the show. Tonight's show is sold out.