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Concert review: Shuggie Otis at Lincoln Hall

Greg Kot

9:16 AM CDT, April 18, 2013

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The spacious funk albums that Shuggie Otis recorded in the ‘70s still feel right on time, their innovation transcending the considerable shadow cast by his father, the late, great R&B band leader Johnny Otis.

But Shuggie brought it all back home Wednesday at Lincoln Hall, channeling his father’s sound as much as his own. It was a set steeped in horn-spackled blues tradition as much as the more personal perspective of his 1974 masterpiece, “Inspiration Information.”

The set suggested a return to the guitarist’s earliest days -- at age 15, he was already developing a reputation as a stellar blues soloist while playing in his father’s Los Angeles-based big band. He was championed by established artists such as Al Kooper, who produced his first album, and Frank Zappa.

When Otis began recording on his own, he veered away from straight-up blues into more esoteric terrain, blending his classical training with studio experimentation, often playing all the instruments himself. His song “Strawberry Letter 23” was later turned into a million-selling hit when covered by the Brothers Johnson, and his recordings have been sampled countless times by hip-hop artists such as Kanye West, J Dilla and Digable Planets.

Otis once turned down an offer from the Rolling Stones to replace Mick Taylor as guitarist. Instead, after releasing “Inspiration Information,” he drifted away from the mainstream music business. A decade ago, David Byrne re-released “Inspiration Information” on his Luaka Bop label to acclaim from a new generation of admirers, and that album has been repackaged yet again this week with a batch of previously unreleased recordings spanning 1977 to 2000.

Though Otis has performed only sporadically in recent decades, with mixed results, he was in excellent form Wednesday in front of a full house. Long gone is the extravagant Afro he sported in the ‘70s, but there was still a touch of flamboyance as frilly shirt sleeves spilled from beneath his black jacket. He was supported by a seven-piece band that included his brother Nick on drums and his son Eric on guitar. But the dominant feature of the lineup was a three-piece horn section, which gave much of the set a brassy R&B swagger that Johnny Otis surely would have loved.

The set was about evenly divided between blues songs and “Inspiration Information”-era tracks. The more traditional material, including a cover of Gene Barge’s “Me and My Woman,” the simmering “Sweet Thang” and “Picture of Love,” allowed Otis to repay his debt to Chicago blues. The formidable skills he flashed as a teenage guitar prodigy remained intact: his patience, his acutely bittersweet tone, the way he structured his solos to suggest a story rather than just a blur of notes.

Some of the “Inspiration Information” tracks lost their idiosyncratic charm as Otis tried to retro-fit them into a more traditional format. The brass section overwhelmed the skewed, low-fi bossa nova of “Aht Uh Mi Hed” and the lilting Caribbean accents of “Island Letter.” But the suite-like “Sparkle City” founded a second life with orchestration that yo-yoed between a shimmer and a strut.   

The 10-minute “Wings of Love” veered from dire to transcendent, a second-hand power ballad in the vein of early ‘80s Journey or Foreigner redeemed by Otis’ snaking solo, which suggested a missing link between Eddie Hazel’s “Maggot Brain” and Prince’s “I Could Never Take the place of Your Man.”

“Strawberry Letter 23” soared when Otis and son Eric played unison runs on their guitars. It’s a song that still sounds outside of any category. Similarly, Otis ripped “Ice Cold Daydream” from its tentative connection to funk and riddled it with futuristic guitar shrapnel. For much of the show, Otis sounded like he was paying a visit to his father’s old musical neighborhood. As the concert wound down, however, the guitarist was finally back in his own world.

greg@gregkot.com

Shuggie Otis set list Wednesday at Lincoln Hall:
1. Inspiration Information
2. Tryin' To Get Close To You 
3. Aht Uh Mi Hed
4. Island Letter
5. Me and My Woman
6. Sparkle City
7. Sweet Thang
8. Picture of Love
9. Wings Of Love
10. Doin' What's Right
11. Blues instrumental

Encore:
12. Strawberry Letter 23
13. Ice Cold Daydream