Stern Grove Festival
Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013
Shuggie Otis is an 18th century monarch onstage at San Francisco's Stern Grove festival, surrounded by your usual free Sunday concert crowd: blissed-out young couples drinking beer from mason jars, North Face parents coddling their Chardonnay in proper glasses, newborn faces scrunched between impossibly bulky earmuffs. The vibe is picnicky. And here is Shuggie, onstage in leather riding boots, black velvet coat with gold piping, and silk ascot, having just stepped out of a baroque painting. Sunglasses hide his eyes, but he seems to be staring at something very far away. He's making noises with his mouth -- ostensibly the lyrics to "Inspiration Information," the first song of the set -- but they're shapeless vowels haphazardly colliding with a microphone. Technical problems are a definite possibility.
Otis is one of the revered recluses of soul-funk-blues music, so it's to be expected that he looks and sounds a little out of place. Now back on the road after more than 30 years of near-silence, he's soaking up the adoration of a generation that missed out on "Strawberry Letter 23" and "Inspiration Information" when they topped charts in the mid-'70s.
Otis was in his early 20s when he wrote and recorded the music that made him famous, and he's 59 now. Whatever happened to him in the intervening years was not kind to his vocal cords. Otis was never a great singer, but his smooth, naive-sounding twentysomething voice didn't get in the way. Today, what comes out is merely placeholder mumbling. We can understand the lyrics, but they don't sound pretty. (This doesn't always hinder the music, though -- as we discovered yesterday, he can deliver the confounded sadness of blues classic "Me and My Woman" just fine.)
Otis also wields a gorgeous red guitar, and can cause all sorts of neck and face contortions among the picnickers with the thing. At one point he embarks upon a searing, Hendrix-y solo that stretches for minutes in length, dozens of bars, while the band (complete with brass section!) hunkers down and funks the hell out of one solid riff. (A friend turns to me and asks, "Did Shuggie Otis invent Prince?" Maybe so.) The backing musicians seem to sweat through the whole show, working at full boil and revealing Otis' singing as the weakest link in the entire production.
When "Strawberry Letter 23" arrives -- near the end, of course -- the younger musicians sing lead with their frontman, giving the song a youthful warmth it very much needs. This only solidifies the impression of Shuggie Otis as out of time and out of place. His attitude is still correct -- swaggering in a spiffy outfit through entirely ridiculous guitar solos -- though the temporal strain doesn't make for an excellent performance. But even at his most bumbling, watching Otis is an odd kind of fun: He's a king from a past age, recreating his smooth, soulful realm for an audience that would otherwise never know such resplendence.
Opener: The Relatives, a Dallas psychedelic soul/gospel band, also summed coiffed nostalgia, but with a little more humanity. At one point they implored the picnicking masses to their feet, then made everyone shake their hips through a long jam. Not every opener could do that.