For Men

Soul brother

- Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star

The first thing that comes to mind about funk/soul pioneer Shuggie Otis is his name: it’s perfect somehow, conjuring up a ‘70s world of wah-wah pedals and Starsky and Hutch soundtracks — a sound, if one is to characterize it, that settles comfortably within that era even while slyly subverting it.

Then you learn that he’s one-quarter Pinoy (mother Phyllis, half-black and half-Filipino, married blues and R&B legend Johnny Otis back in the ‘50s). His dad schooled him in the blues and the teen prodigy sessioned with people like Frank Zappa and Al Kooper before settling into an under-the-radar solo career that produced only three records before he virtually disappeared for 30 years. If Shuggie Otis didn’t exist, it would have been necessary for soul-loving writers like Jonathan Letham and Michael Chabon to invent him in one of their novels.

Once the long coat came off, Otis soared into the stratosphere.

But Otis was real enough in a live performance recently at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, a highfalutin name for a barn-sized club that held a half acre of hipsters — more flannel shirts, black plastic frames and mutton chops per square meter than you’d find at a Bon Iver concert. Settling onstage amid a bed of solid musicians (two of them related — his son on guitar and brother on drums — plus a horn section and Morris Day-like keyboardist), Otis was bedecked in a long coat and fedora, red Gibson strapped on and ready.

Shuggie Otis might have remained a mere footnote of ‘70s soul music if it weren’t for constant rallying by people like David Byrne and Lenny Kravitz, and the fact that his Sly Stone-influenced electro-funk and eclectic brand of psychedelic soul kept getting sampled by people like Digable Planets, OutKast and Beyoncé. He was famously approached to join the Rolling Stones back in 1976, but turned the gig down. Then there was that radio hit, Strawberry Letter 23, which was a huge smash for The Brothers Johnson, but not for its writer, Shuggie Otis.

Pinoy, di ba?: Cover of Shuggie Otis’s 1971 release “Freedom Flight”

Finally, at age 59, Otis steps out of the shadows and releases a new album, “Wings of Love,” packaged as a double with a remastered version of “Inspiration Information,” the 1974 release that gained him wide cult status. Shuggie is back, but it’s kind of like he wandered in through the side door, careful not to make too big a deal of it.

Onstage, he makes gracious comments about the sizable crowd on a Brooklyn Friday night, and some pseudo-cryptic remarks (this is a week after the Boston Marathon bombings) about togetherness and everybody being “cool.” His vocals are a shade fluttery, but his guitar does the more eloquent talking.

What’s cool about Shuggie Otis is his basic musicianship. He’s not out to reinvent the wheel: he digs in for a couple lengthy blues numbers, giving each band member a spotlight. When it’s his turn, he grinds out overdriven riffs, scraping at the edges of psychedelic soul, head thrown back. Eventually the long coat and Fedora come off, and Otis is wearing a white button-down shirt that seems more suitable to a 1930s blues speakeasy. Some gigantic hipster chick in the crowd keeps waving a pointed index finger in the air and yelling out “Play XL-30!” — a two-minute drum-machine instrumental from “Inspiration Information” that would make absolutely zero sense onstage.

Instead Shuggie makes room for bouncy electro-soul numbers like Aht Uh Mi Head, Island Letter and Sparkle City. Listening to these cuts from 1974, you feel like a missing link between Funkadelic and Sly Stone has been released from its amber casing; this stuff was effortlessly cool, but he could also do full-blown epics like Strawberry Letter 23 (which, pointedly, he did not perform on Friday) with its ascending, phased guitar chorus and tinkling xylophone, or eccentric numbers like Happy House that seemed to point the way towards Prince’s later experiments. Towards the second half of the show, Otis showcased a few numbers from his latest album, including a soaring guitar solo on title cut Wings of Love (justifying the early Hendrix comparisons). But even there, on new material, you can tell Otis is operating from another era, another headspace altogether. You can’t say his music has evolved, anymore than Kurt Cobain’s songwriting “evolved” between “Nevermind” and “In Utero.” It is what it is.

The lengthiest of soul-reaching solos comes during the outro to Ice Cold Daydream, a song I had coincidentally taken a shine to just before hearing that Shuggie Otis was coming to town: it concerns a guy who’s shaken cold by a vision of his girl hooking up with some other dude. The solo on its original version, from 1971’s “Freedom Flight,” fades out after about 15 seconds. Here, in Williamsburg, it bursts forth from his Gibson for eight minutes or so; my phone camera ran out of megabytes, and Shuggie was still just getting warmed up. Just like him to play it under the radar, outside the camera’s eye.










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