Reclusive by nature, seminal psych-soul figure Shuggie Otis hasn’t performed much since the mid ’70s, which made his sold-out Wednesday evening concert at the Echoplex a rare and unique opportunity for curious fans. Rediscovering previously-neglected artists is a wonderful, enriching rite of passage — the show was populated primarily by the 20- and 30-year-olds who have rediscovered the songsmith in more recent years — but when an artist is thrown back into the spotlight, the results can be unpredictable. In Otis’ case, the return to live performance may not have been such an inspired idea.
With “Strawberry Letter 23,” Otis etched his sublime, psychedelic vision into the annals of pop music history. Sure, it was the Brothers Johnson’s tamer, smoother version of the song that connected with audiences in 1977, but Otis’ dreamy lyrical refrains and melodic nuance subtly recalibrated the expectations of listeners and musicians alike. A few years later, Prince would blossom into a mainstream musical titan, effusing a sonic palette dripping with funk rhythms, syncopated drum machines and exquisite guitar playing — all trademarks of the Shuggie Otis sound. Unheralded and mostly forgotten in his own time, Otis released three solo albums, two of which were incredibly beautiful and startlingly innovative.
As the house lights dimmed Wednesday night, Otis’ band members took to the stage and confusedly dealt with a number of technical issues. Microphones were out of place, chords weren’t plugged in, amps weren’t turned on and the already long delay only lengthened when Otis stepped onto the stage. Appearing gaunt with a shock of combed white hair, Otis proceeded to adjust knobs on the head of his amplifier for around 15 minutes. The crowd stood patiently as the delays continued to mount, finally subsiding with a bass-heavy version of the sterling “Inspiration Information.” From the sound of things, the band had not soundchecked and the mix continued to vary wildly throughout the song.
Otis’ voice was fried, his once soulful croon reduced to a smoky, strained approximation of its former self, though “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” “Island Letter” and “Happy House” were given solid, if somewhat dull readings. Through each song, Otis appeared obsessed with a faint hissing that emanated from his amp. He endlessly tinkered with the amp and the hissing only grew worse, transforming into an ear-splitting wail by the midpoint of the set. Frustrated with the malfunctions, Otis threatened to end the show if the amp could not be fixed. It never was fixed, but he continued to perform anyway, taking lengthy blues-derived solos as the feedback roared wildly.
In spite of the onstage chaos, a surprising amount of audience members stayed and watched till the very end. Perhaps they felt that they owed him that respect: to support the hero who had given so much to them musically. But clearly what Otis has left to give remains etched into the grooves of his original albums. They retain all of the majesty that they’ve always had — and one ill-conceived show will never diminish that.