With a concert ticket in hand to see a notoriously reclusive legend of the past, one never really knows just what to expect. An artist like Shuggie Otis is an especially curious case. After creating some of the most singularly influential albums of the early seventies, the psychedelic R&B pioneer disappeared into relative anonymity. Now, approaching his 60th birthday, he has resurfaced -- with his guitar in tow. In support of the recent re-release of 1974's Inspiration Information, Otis stopped through this weekend on his way to Austin City Limits. His incendiary performance was well worth the twenty-year wait.
As if the night's main attraction didn't feel enough like walking into a time machine, The Kessler Theater (our Best of Dallas 2013 pick for Best Live Music Venue) was certainly groomed for the occasion. Cocktail tables were stacked from the edge of the stage to the mezzanine level. Entering the historic art-deco music hall evoked a classic setting, almost reminiscent of a mid-century night at the Copacabana. The only thing missing as you weaved through the crowd to your seating, was a charismatic kingpin on your arm, slipping twenty dollar bills to every theater employee you passed along the way.
After a late-starting, short-running, and seemingly frazzled set from opening act John Murry concluded, the room buzzed with anticipation for the man of the hour. Shuggie Otis took the stage dressed in black, except for a wide-brimmed white fedora which absorbed the venue's pink and blue spotlighting like a technicolor halo. Between deep cuts and cult favorites, he graciously thanked the crowd for attending, admitting he hadn't set foot on a Dallas stage since the mid-eighties. The audience howled and roared with a specific kind of enthusiasm that comes from only being blessed with Otis' presence every couple of decades.
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Though Otis' effortless and meditative guitar shredding was positively hypnotic, his backing band was nothing short of captivating. A rousing horn section fervently blasted impassioned fills while Otis' keyboard player slapped and banged away at his organ parts in the throes of full-blown scrunch face. It was as if the band was just as elated to be on stage with Otis as the audience was to witness this rare and beautiful moment in time.
Otis started with the groove heavy portion of his catalogue, including spirited versions of "Aht Uh Mi Hed" and "Ice Cold Daydream". Newer material from the Inspiration Information re-release fit into the set well, particularly "Special"-- the incredibly catchy uptempo jam that had everyone's shoulders swaying. Otis' astonishing blues guitar prowess especially shined through on a fierce and feisty rendition of "Me And My Woman". The highlight of the set however, would come at the encore. His most popular hit, "Strawberry Letter 23", brought the enraptured audience to their feet.
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Even after all these years, Shuggie Otis is having no issues getting back into the swing of performing. Whatever the reasoning for his extended hiatus from the music industry, it's clear to see in just one live show, that his heart never really left the stage.