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ACL Fest review: Shuggie Otis

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Chad Swiatecki

Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 7, 2013

Before storied and frustratingly erratic soulman Shuggie Otis and his six-piece backing band took the stage under the Zilker Tent on Sunday, the soundsystem crackled and played Samuel L. Jackson’s famous Ezekiel 25:17 monologue (the one from the diner, not the apartment) from “Pulp Fiction.” It was natural to wonder if the philosophical passage was used to foreshadow some aspect of Otis’ set, or if there would be a theme of loss and redemption on the night for the reclusive musician who spent much of his career in a creative wilderness.

But that was very much not the case. Turns out the clip was probably just something cool and attention grabbing that Otis or one of his bandmates thought would be interesting to play before playing what was, for the most part, a disjointed, thin and frustrating set that only found a bit of a groove at its very end.

Otis is, of course, one of those mysterious “lost” legends of the ‘70s who released a small but revered catalog of psychedelic soul before effectively leaving the music business for a few decades. This is the guy who got the call to join the Rolling Stones on tour and (eventually) take the spot that fell to Ron Wood but decided to pass.

Now 59 and having had his career resurrected through carefully currated reissues of his previous material, Otis is out on the road behind a combo release of his key album “Inspiration Information” with the rarities collection “Wings Of Love.” Going in it was a gamble and a longshot to expect Otis to approach the level of recent soul and folk reclamation projects like Charles Bradley and Sixto Rodriguez, but what went down was just… a bummer.

Sounding stiff and sparse from the outset despite a full band with three horns/winds players, the band’s rendition of “Inspiration Information”’s title track had none of the bottom and swing of the original and instead sounded like a hotel lounge jazz combo paying tribute.

It went on that way for nearly hour, with random moments of Otis’s guitar virtuosity that still felt out of place even before he offered up random and just plain weird stage banter that lent credence to his reputation as something of a drug casualty.

The only saving graces came at the tail end, when “Strawberry Letter 23” – a pop-soul song that’s pretty much impossible to make sound bad – started to turn things around. Set closer “Ice Cold Daydream” and its undeniable funk salvaged things a little more with extended solos and breakdowns that showed just what Otis and his bandmates are capable of.

That was simultaneously encouraging and frustrating since it took nearly an hour to get there. Hopefully next weekend Otis gets the engine on his soul train cranking a little bit quicker.