Shuggie Otis at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC 9 October 2013 (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

Once the doors opened, we entered and secured our barstools, settling in to wait for the show. Minutes earlier, the Orange Peel’s Facebook event update status had informed us that the opening act had canceled last-minute, and as such Shuggie Otis would be taking the stage earlier than usual. At this point, only a handful of attendees had shown up, though by showtime the place was a hive of activity.

A few feet away from us, there was a surprising sight: Shuggie was sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and chatting with a few people. Now, the green rooms at the Orange Peel are well appointed, and most artists hang backstage pre-show. It’s a rarity to see a performer out in the venue-proper before the show begins. But here was Shuggie, smiling and conversing with various people.

When I had made my initial press inquiries, I was told that interviews with the man were few and far between. So with that in mind, I was hesitant to approach him. But other people seemed to have no compunction about doing so, and Shuggie was clearly engaging in conversation with them. So we wandered over and said hello. Shuggie shook our hands, thanked us for having helped him get into the venue, and graciously posed for a photo, still wearing his suit and hat, and sporting a big smile.

I was immediately stuck at his relaxed, casual demeanor. Based (unfairly, perhaps) on the hushed rumors I had heard, I half expected him to be a huddled recluse, wheeled out onstage to perform. Instead he was a cool and very approachable cat. There were no signs of him being anything other than a completely together performer, patiently waiting for his time to go onstage. After a few moments, we returned to our seats. Shuggie continued to chat with other people, posing occasionally for yet another photo, and mere minutes before showtime, he headed backstage.

When Shuggie Otis came out onto the Orange Peel’s stage, he was dressed in that same suit and hat. He had set aside his cane and donned a pair of large, dark sunglasses. He was wearing a vintage red Gibson SG with tremolo bar. The band vamped a bit while a robotic voice (a recorded intro) name-checked the onstage musicians, assigning them all pseudonyms. Otis introduced the first song – a variation on “Inspiration Information” and off they went, laying down a groove that was equal parts soul, funk and r&b. That song – punctuated by Otis introducing his band mates one by one – led into a straight reading of the actual “Inspiration Information,” one that melted away the years. Otis sounded exactly the same: those fluid grooves, that silky yet assertive guitar, that voice.

At the end of that song – and after grappling with an unruly Marshall half-stack and some pedals – Otis introduced each of the band members…again. This left us slightly perplexed: would he be doing this all evening, after every song?

His band was tight. Featuring his younger brother on drums, the band also included a keyboard player, bassist and a three-man horn section. Several of the musicians sang backup and took their turns at soloing on their instruments, but it was always Otis who held center stage. Alternating between the SG and a black Les Paul, Shuggie delivered a set that drew from his three albums plus Wings of Love. The material from the latter was significantly better onstage than on the disc, perhaps owing to the full-band arrangement (in the studio, even as far back as the 70s, Otis has often favored primitive drum machines) and the organic feel of a live performance.

Blues numbers gave Otis ample opportunity to show off his sharp skills as a lead guitarist, and the sax, flute and keyboard solo spots gave him the chance to display his funky rhythm guitar chops. Between songs he’d sometime ramble a bit, occasionally laughing heartily at something the rest of us didn’t quite catch, but he was clearly having a good time. During the set, Shuggie endured some good-natured ribbing from his bandmates, and responded in kind. “What’d he say?! I should dock him. But he’s also my road manager. He handles the finances. So what’s a man to do?” Mid-set Shuggie teased the audience that he’d invite us all up onstage.

And to my great surprise, he eventually did just that. Near the end of the set, I wandered up close to the stage to get a few more photos. At that point, Shuggie’s road manager/horn player leapt to the front edge of the stage and began waving his arms, exhorting people to come on up onto the stage. Finding myself right there, I gamely went along. As it happened, of the dozen-plus people who made it up there, I was one of only two males. The rest were women who clearly came to dance. And dance they did, surrounding Shuggie as he knelt down, coaxing extended lead guitar lines from his SG. The crowd loved it, and welcomed him back for an rousing encore that included “Strawberry Letter #23.”

Otis’ site has a bit of information about his current studio project, due out sometime in 2014 and featuring some “special guests.” In the meantime, his current road show has wrapped up: last week’s Asheville date was followed by shows in Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans and Austin. If Asheville’s show was any indicator, the man is back in top form, and if there’s a tour in support of his as-yet-untitled album next year, I’ll be there, holding the front door open for him once again.

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