Sometimes I get nostalgic for the experience of rock and roll of my youth. By this I mean the primal, tribal, lustful, anti-authoriterean, pure joy of early rock.
I’ll start by way of a negative example of what is not rock and roll and that is The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While understandable as an institutional way of recognizing some wonderful talents and careers, the R&R HOF is corporate and and has about as much soul as a Hard Rock Cafe.
Another example of the loss of rock spirit in Today’s world came up in conversation with a friend recently. We were in agreement that The Grateful Dead would never have made it today. It took them 4 or 5 albums before they were commercially successful. These days moneyed interests would never support such a gestational period.
So earlier today I was tour guiding some friends in Napa when we discovered ourselves in front of the old Napa Opera House, now a club run by City Winery. A sign announced that Shuggie Otis would be playing in a couple of hours. Instantly I became giddy for here was a moment of something spontaneous and potentially revelatory.
For those who don’t know, Shuggie was a wunderkind of the late 60’s and mid-70’s and who subsequently disappeared for years. At the height of his early powers he turned down a request to join the Rolling Stones on tour in 1970s. He played bass on Peaches en Regalia for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album (most people don’t know that Peaches en Regalia was the theme song of Saturday Night Live in its earliest years, contributing a great coolness factor for this early SNL fan).
Plus he penned the hit smash Strawberry Letter 23 by the Brothers Johnson.
And then he just disappeared for the longest time. There have been the usual rumors that he became a drug casualty. In the mean time his stature has grown among cognoscenti partly because of his hugely influential 1974 album Inspiration Information.
So with both intuition and trepidation, I purchased the least expensive seat and was immediately upgraded to the VIP section, because sales were so low. The rock and roll Gods were already smiling on me. But simultaneously I wondered if so few people were in attendance because Shuggie had morphed into a combination of contemporary casualties such as Brian Wilson, or much worse, Sly Stone. I was hoping he’d be more like Rodriguez, the wonderful American folkie who became the “Bob Dylan” of South Africa in the 1970s only to disappear from scene completely until rediscovered and resurrected decades later. See my review of the lovely documentary about Rodriguez called Searching For Sugarman.
But maybe for Shuggie, all he could do now is suck.
I am happy to report that Shuggie Otis and band were compelling while also giving pause because of the rawness and unrehearsed aspects of the show.
This blog, known as Psychological Review of the Arts, means that plenty of quirky concert oddness must be noted. His idiosyncrasies just made Shuggie that much more endearing while capturing that original rock spirit. Actually it was much better than if he had just revealed himself to be still competent after all these years (with no apologies to Paul Simon). It gave something to chew on.
We see so many perfect concerts on Palladia these days. Most performers come across as skillful, charismatic and surrounded by very good supporting talent. In fact if one doesn’t possess these talents, one usually doesn’t make TV.
Quirky is a word I use to describe all the feelings I have for Shuggie inside (with no apologies to The Association).
He was surprising right out of the shoot. Whereas the opening act had an announcer on stage to introduce him, Shuggie wanders on stage to start his show with his mates with no audience build up. I have to feel he wanted it that way. No puffed up diva here!
The opening song sounded like the first sound check of the evening. Volumes and balances were off and Shuggie was struggling with equipment at his feet. With no explanation he stopped the show for a few minutes before the second song, getting things to his liking with help from the bassist. This is typically roadie territory and so more evidence of Shuggie doing it his way.
Still it was apparent from the first song and really for most of the concert that Shuggie didn’t particularly care to connect with audience. He slowly revealed enjoyment while performing, but his joy was personal and not particularly shared. His fragility again drew me in. It is not my business to diagnose people I have never talked to, but it felt a little Asperbergery.
This tour seems new as he announced a couple of tunes with key signatures for the benefit of the band. The last time I heard a musician speak of keys was at the end of the live recording of Fingertips Part 2 by Little Stevie Wonder.
Then at the end of the show Shuggie walks off stage for a minute. While the audience has almost finished its applause, he saunters across the stage without acknowledgement. It seemed he preferred the other side. Next he returns for a first encore just when the audience finished making noise rather than the de rigger building to a crescendo, which was possible even with the small crowd.
Strangeness continued. With the show seemingly over for 5 minutes, the bass player comes back onstage to retrieve some equipment and signals to the audience for applause which brings out Shuggie for the second encore.
There were a number of musical highlights. Shuggie’s music is disarming in how it sneaks up on you. For example what starts out as straight forward blues morphs into funk while still being true to the original idiom. Funk is a key to many songs. And then there are the stunning ballads. Shuggie’s guitar still wails even if it gets lost in the mix because unlike an Eric Clapton, Shuggie often eschews high register solos. Let’s hope the sound man can make a better contribution in the future.
At one point it just hit me that Prince did not miss out on taking whatever he could from Shuggie. Maybe Prince wound up where he did and Shuggie is where he is because while quirky is an acquired charm, charisma is instant bonding with the audience and sells the tickets.
Perhaps it is the therapist in me that is often drawn to the wounded birds of Rock. I root for the Brian Wilson’s of the world. I saw Brian a number of years ago at the Neal Young’s Bridge School concert. He had just returned to touring after many years underground. BW looks at all the kids on the stage in wheel chairs, the Bridge School being for children with very severe birth defects, and mumbles something about it being special for him to play before all these “crippled children.” Touching and a bit cringe worthy.
Being true to yourself and showing up to reveal flaws as well as incredible talent, that to me is rock and roll. Thanks for keeping it real Shuggie.
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