With Larry g(EE)
Club Dada, Dallas
Sunday, July 12, 2015
We live in a weird world, musically. What is old is new again, what is new is influenced by the old, and we are seeing more musical diversity than ever before. Yet we seem perennially stuck in our country’s musical golden era, the 1960s and '70s. Even as trends fluctuate and fads fade away, there is nothing more enduring than a good groove, a well-played guitar, achingly good vocals — and a guy like Shuggie Otis.
As soon as Otis took the stage Sunday night at Club Dada, dressed in his dapper pinstriped pants and sunglasses much like those he used to wear in order to play in his father’s band as a teen, the crowd almost couldn’t handle the swagger. When he plugged in his guitar, there was so little fanfare that it seemed almost sacrilegious. It seemed strange to see such a legend of R&B and soul standing on that tiny stage.
That was especially true when you put music like this into the context of someone like Leon Bridges, the music world’s latest superstar-in-waiting. Otis and Bridges don’t have the same aesthetic by any stretch of the imagination, but their music does fit into the same soulfully shaped box. It's hard to watch Otis play a woefully undersold room as Bridges sells out venues in Dallas-Fort Worth and beyond. Bridges is waiting to collect the fanfare that Otis earned in the 1970s.
This is a man who came up in the 1950s playing in his father’s band in smoky nightclubs before he was old enough to shave. He's worked with some of the best musicians on the planet, including Prince, and once turned down a job touring with the Rolling Stones. Even if the musical world is aware of Otis’ brilliance, only the nerdiest of music fans have any familiarity with his impressive and diverse body of work. This makes for quite the injustice, though certainly not the only of its kind.
Otis rolled through his set, playing “Miss Pretty” in an impossibly energetic, funky as hell groove before slowing it down a bit for “Island Letter.” Recent reviews of Otis on tour have criticized his aging voice, but at Dada it sounded as rich and raw and full as it did 40 years ago. “Me and That Woman” was particularly impressive and had everyone in the room dancing, even if they really shouldn’t have been. You know a song or an act is particularly excellent when the stuffiest looking white dude in the room is unable to contain his awkward bodily movements during a particularly funky groove.
Then Otis surprised everyone again, as the opening notes of “The Sweetest Thing” started to ring out. You may not really think of Otis as a particularly impressive blues guitarist, but the man is the original Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Vaughan owes him plenty of credit for his contribution to the Texas Blues aesthetic. Otis’ playing is impeccable and emotionally charged, and in its harder, heavier moments he proved that he has no problem rocking with the best of them.
After playing a tight, hour-and-a-half set, Otis stepped off the stage for the briefest of moments before returning to play a two-song encore. The crowd had barely been able to launch into their chants of “Shuggie! Shuggie! Shuggie!” before he was back and strapping on a sexy little baby-blue hollow body guitar. The first song of the encore, "Strawberry Letter 23," was the track that everyone had been missing all night long. The Brothers Johnson’s version of this track, penned by Otis, is most famous, but his own version is particularly impressive, especially in a live setting. In fact, damn near everything that he’s ever written is something that you’d have to see live to fully understand.
As Bridges — who is indisputably talented and certainly going places — has reminded us, we have a tendency to say that up-and-coming performers are “the truth” or “the real deal,” when time can only tell whether they're more than flashes in the pan. It's strange to think that these two are playing music at the same time, even though they’re two generations apart. Still, Bridges has plenty to learn from a guy like Otis. He may not have done everything to suit his fans, his record label and even his supporters, but he has always told his own “truth,” on his own terms, and that's valuable in an artist of any generation.
Critic's Notebook: Before Otis took the stage, opener Larry g(EE), with his Lou Bega-esque bossa nova attire and similar sound, was a solid way to kick off an evening of incredible soul, blues and R&B. Even though g(EE) is perhaps a better performer than he is a songwriter or arranger, his act still felt perfectly in line with the tone of the evening. He’s Bruno Mars with an authentic old soul, and Sunday night’s set was the perfect expression of that aesthetic. The set could likely use a little tightening up — the background singers were occasionally off-beat and out of tune, and it was frequently difficult to hear Larry g(EE)’s vocals in the monitors.