Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Strawberry Letter 23

You could say it's my week for funky legends.

An early morning offer of two free tickets to see Shuggie Otis at the National made for a great way to start the day.

It took exactly one e-mail to find a willing partner for dinner and a show, leaving me to ponder only how warmly to dress on what felt like a cold snap of an evening (so cool I came home to find neighbors with their fire pit burning briskly).

Walking up to the venue, it was easy to see what a diverse audience the 59-year old psychedelic soul pioneer had attracted.

The crowd ran the gamut from hipsters to those Shuggie's age, although I have to admit I didn't see any hands with an "X" so everyone was at least 21.

Opener John Murry's set had begun when we arrived and his songs came across as southern gothic Americana, which made it no surprise when I ran into a friend who works at the National who told me Murray had told him that he's William Faulkner's great-grandson.

He was a mumbler of the highest order, making it tough to hear song names, although I did hear him say, "Every record should have a song by somebody else on it" before doing a cover I didn't recognize.

After his set, he instructed the crowd to move closer, saying, "Mumble, mumble, see Shuggie, mumble, so you can experience his playing and get a soul, too."

Not content with being soulless, my companion and I moved to within six people of the stage for an excellent vantage point.

Suddenly, the band appeared and a booming announcer's voice called out their names before Shuggie himself took the stage, resplendent in a gray suit, white ascot, sunglasses  and white fedora.

He and his band - keyboards, drums, bass and a three-piece horn section- seemed to be having a blast the whole night as the played songs from Shuggie's '70s albums including the critically-acclaimed "Inspiration Information" (like the Sly Stone-inspired spelling in "Aht Uh Mi Hed") and blues tunes, punctuating them with shredding guitar work on his Les Paul guitar.

From the first notes, it was impossible to stand still for this funk master who's been making booties shake since 1969.

I thought the best part of his solos, besides his obvious guitar mastery, was the giant smile that came on his face, baring a set of perfect teeth every time he shredded for us.

The horn section was strong, playing everything from baritone sax to flute to ensure the brass required for good rhythm and blues, and killing it with extended solos. The pianist banged on his keys open-handed and the bass player slapped the strings for all he was worth.

Introducing "Trying to Get Close to You," Shuggie shared his wisdom, saying, "Cause the first thing you do when you meet someone good is try!"

That's just what we do.

He showed humor throughout the night with comments like, "I'm gonna say I love you. But I don't know if I mean it!"


Shuggie's voice wasn't the strongest, but with backing vocals and so much instrumentation, all that mattered was how much fun they all were having.

After the last song, the band left the stage and the crowd began to cheer. Nobody was ready to stop dancing.

The trumpet player came back out and yelled, "You want Shuggie back, you're going to have to do better than that!"

That set off a cacophony and before long, the legend returned to treat us to his best-known song, albeit not the version most people know.

"Strawberry Letter 23" was a much bigger hit for the Brothers Johnson than it was for Shuggie, but it's his song and he and the band made it their own with a solid rendition of a '70s classic.

I'm assuming the hipsters in the crowd knew it from being sampled so often.

They finished with a funky version of "Ice Cold Daydream," during which Shuggie ended up laying on the stage playing his guitar facing the ceiling.

The trumpet player ran over, grabbed the mic and yelled, "Ladies and gentlemen, the legend, Shuggie Otis!" and pointed at the floor.

As if anyone in the room didn't know where he was.

It was everything I could do to see Shuggie writhing on the stage, fedora still in place, because of the phalanx of people pointing cameras at him instead of just experiencing the moment.

But I digress.

By the time the band left the stage, Shuggie shouting, "That's how we do it!" we'd been ecstatically dancing for two straight hours to funk and blues done old-school style.

I'm gonna say I loved the show. And I do mean it.

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