SHUGGIE OTIS – PHOENIX CONCERT THEATRE, TORONTO ON
It’s been over forty years since Inspiration Information, the critically acclaimed though commercially overlooked release by then up-and-coming guitar prodigy Shuggie Otis, hit store shelves and kicked off the story of a man whose tightly-held artistic beliefs didn’t quite square with a career in the music biz. But despite that great passage of time, it seems his fans – now a multigenerational swath of ardent music lovers – have never forgotten their man, and they turned out in force to support his latest rebirth at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre this past weekend.
Opening duties at the highly-anticipated event were turned over to local rocker Ben Stevenson, who set things off with a drawn-out series of white knuckled, tortured-soul ballads helped along by a handful of more bustling and sanguine grooves. With the pain and conviction of his conversational pleas stretched across his face, the towering frontman poured his heart out over a string of soul-licked torch songs, his guitar gripped tightly as he swayed around singing into space like a teenager might do while alone in a room, which was kind of endearing. With a surprise rendition of Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” complete with original lyrics, Stevenson and his band made good on their opening role and left a sound impression on a night when the long-awaited main course couldn’t come soon enough.
Despite an admirable streak of stubbornness that appears to have been the largest stumbling block in his career as a solo artist, Shuggie Otis has always shown himself (at least in interviews) to be an incredibly humble musician. Fans got to see that humility in the flesh at show time when, with his band and stage techs still running through the paces of one final sound check, the modest legend simply walked out, picked up his axe and started limbering up on his own, to the delight of the startled crowd. Anxious to get right to things, the excited virtuoso almost kicked off the opening tune without his bassist, before the band’s panicked trumpeter cut his opening four-count short at the two! After a relaxed chuckle and the bass man’s hasty return, Shuggie reset his count and the seasoned ensemble opened things up with a bright and colourful run-through of the fitting lead-in “Inspiration Information”, the title track from the album that made his name.
Favorites like “Aht Uh Mi Hed” and the slow and sticky “Sweet Thing” were made absolutely radiant in the live setting due in large part to the horn section’s inimitable swagger and the cool, cunning clank of the singer’s chunky guitar. While a few of the more subdued numbers had Shuggie’s voice sounding a little weak, all of that would change once the singer hit upon his primary musical muse, the blues. Through a large portion of the night’s midsection, the biting guitar solos, encouraging organ runs and sympathetic horn wails typical of that tortured genre coaxed the singer along as his voice, by then embolden, became a force all its own. The blues gave way to the 80’s-era funk rock feel of the soon to be released “Wings of Love,” and after a jamming closer, the self-confessed prolific songwriter switched things up once again when he returned to the stage alone to perform an acoustic song written for his brother back in 2001.
With the unmistakable twin psychedelic guitar line raining in the final tones of the subsequent crowd-pleaser (and Otis’ lone hit) “Strawberry Letter 23”, Shuggie used the show’s remaining moments to unleash his inner guitar hero, going to ground in the throws of one last soaring solo during the band’s rowdy and triumphant final tune. Through it all, the revered musician showed the indelible talent fans have always seen in him through the years. But, more significantly, he came off as a man entirely unbowed and uninhibited by what could have been, and that was very pleasing to witness. (For Exclaim.ca)
By Kevin Jones