The Spin has trouble counting the number of times we've had the privilege of watching a legendary artist perform. Most of the time, we have a pretty good idea of what we're getting into, but psych-soul hero Shuggie Otis is not your everyday elder statesman. He hasn't released new material or toured regularly in decades (though he tells contributor Sean Maloney that we should expect a new album early next year). His catalog so far — consisting of a handful of albums from the early '70s and a disc's worth of tracks recorded between 1975 and 2000 — is a bold, beautiful and unpredictable hybrid of funky soul and psychedelic experimentalism, sounding like someone dosed Allen Toussaint's jambalaya with pharmaceutical-grade acid. In the end, Otis and his band set a new standard for funk, soul and blues shows that's going to be pretty hard to beat, even without doing the one thing we thought for sure they would do — but we'll get to that later.
We sidled in to find opener John Murry communicating with alien satellites from his massive guitar pedal board. There wasn't the slightest hint of funk in the set that Murry laid down with keyboardist Andy Grooms, but it was still a great match with Otis in that we had no idea what would come next. Trying to find something to compare with Murry's deep well of guitar sounds and melancholy baritone mumble-drawl is like trying to catch one of those lizards that can regrow their tails. Things we wrote down included "Guided by Voices covers The Durutti Column" and "Kurt Wagner gets laryngitis, asks Jay Farrar to fill in during Lambchop tour"; we'll stand by those, but it was more important to just listen. When we could hear Murry clearly, which wasn't often enough, we were treated to some heartfelt and enticingly weird songs, delivered with the nonchalance of a high schooler playing a basement party, but with decades of experience and nuanced technique. Accompanied by Grooms on piano, Murry poured himself into a delicate cover of "Thorn Tree in the Garden," one of the other assorted love songs on Derek and the Dominoes' one and only album, all while tuning his guitar.
The crowd, spanning boomers who got into Shuggie the first time around through generations who discovered him in dusty crates or on late-night radio, filled the place to a comfortable level, with just enough room to get our swerve on without elbowing someone, and the body heat several notches below sticky-sweat suffocating. Samuel L. Jackson's Pulp Fiction monologue about his relationship with Ezekiel 25:17 came over the P.A. while the band took their places. Cued by "But I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd," the man of the hour appeared, sharp and elegant in a tailored velvet tux with a tailcoat, scarf and shades, ready to guide us through the valley of funk. The opening track, "Special," wasn't officially released until this year's Inspiration Information/Wings of Love comp, but the whole audience seemed to know what to do, and the band of longtime Otis associates responded in kind, tearing up the song's proto-disco groove.
Next up were what amount to Otis' greatest hits, favorite cuts like "Inspiration Information," "Aht Uh Mi Hed" and "Sparkle City," followed by more of the eclectic cuts from the Wings of Love collection. Shuggie's guitar solos were mind-blowing torrents of notes, delivered at hard-bop speed without sweating a drop. Both he and his wind section went to town with a range of complex harmonic relationships that would make Charlie Parker jealous. Otis may have played most of the parts himself on his albums, but his choice of bandmates couldn't have been more appropriate, and they followed his every move with incredible feel, making what was insanely difficult look easy.
And then there was the guy who had his video camera out in the front row, and got called on it. We can sympathize with him for wanting to document a unique, amazing, possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience, but do you really want to see the whole thing through a 2.5-inch screen when it's happening right in front of you? As far as we could tell, the fellow complied and put his gear up.
After a couple of smoldering Chicago blues numbers, the band disappeared, re-emerging to burn a hole through the Sly Stone-tinged deep cut "Ice Cold Daydream," stretching the two-minute single to over 10 glorious minutes, with Otis' guitar weeping buckets of ear-splitting feedback as he sipped calmly on a tallboy. And that was it. Thank you, Nashville, round of applause, and house lights. But where was "Strawberry Letter 23," Otis' signature cut and a strong contender for best pop song of the '70s? Maybe Otis is tired of being defined by it, or maybe it was dropped from the program when dude stopped the show with his camcorder. Either way, we got a serious serving of soul from one of the all-time greats, and we're not going to kvetch about that.