Shuggie Otis plays a rare engagement at the Echoplex in Los Angeles. (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Sometimes things fall apart. It's an unfortunate part of the deal. Just because music happens doesn't always mean it happens right, on schedule or as planned. Feedback happens. Budding genius is quashed by forces outside of one's control.
Unfortunately, Shuggie Otis at the Echoplex on Wednesday never really got going. Even if the efforts were often valiant, a bum amp and an uncertain performance hobbled the underground soul legend's return.
The hurdles proved so obstructive that at one point he stopped playing a song midway through as the band was trying to build momentum and said, "If this show don't start now I'm outta here. You should get your money back." He was noticeably upset; this was a hometown crowd, and members of his family were attending.
Otis is, after all, part of the DNA of Los Angeles music, a member of a family whose patriarch, the late Johnny Otis, helped invent rhythm & blues in Los Angeles. The son, a prodigious guitarist who joined his father's band at age 12 and went on to play with, among many others, Etta James, Frank Zappa and Bobby Bland, is best known for "Strawberry Letter #23," the song that funk band the Brothers Johnson took to the charts in 1977.
But to a whole different demographic, Shuggie is the creator of "Inspiration Information," the bedroom funk classic from 1974 that features quiet, introspective jams that live in that sweet world where Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder collide. Made when Otis was in his early 20s, it's a nearly perfect record, and is being reissued by Sony in 2013. This rare appearance was a way of teasing the release.
Otis understands this, and he and his seven-piece band — which featured percussion, keyboard, brass, bass and guitar — attempted to focus on that work from the start. The troubles began before the first note rang, though, as the singer and guitarist, 59, spent a torturous 15 minutes fiddling with a refrigerator-size guitar amp before finally kicking into the title track from "Inspiration Information."
Things were definitely not right, even if the polyrhythmic funk workout offered a little relief — as did a nice rendition of the trippy "Aht Uh Mi Hed."
From there, things collapsed over a rough, unendurable period in which his band pushed onward while Otis, his back to the audience, worked on his amp. His guitar sounded like it was being tortured as he tried to solo, his oft-graceful blues runs drowned by noise. Every hint of momentum was denied.
Songs we wanted to love, delivered by an artist many of us loved and had waited years to see, died in front of us. He and the band did salvage the evening for a nice version of "Strawberry Letter," but it wasn't enough. It's a testament to Shuggie's hold on people that the crowd, though confused, urged him forward at every turn. And politely applauded when they had every right to revolt.
In the end, Otis and band delivered enough to make a case against refunds — but just barely.
Blame? Who knows? One fan audibly suggested that this stuff should have been addressed at sound check. Maybe, but so what? Failure strikes at the best, and would-be feats of flight have been known to crash before they get a chance to soar.