Shuggie Otis at Lincoln Hall | Concert preview
A belated comeback from the man behind “Strawberry Letter 23.”
If the resurgence of soul vets like Bettye LaVette and Charles Bradley has taught us anything, it’s that the genre occasionally (and belatedly) rewards time-worn voices whose careers have been hard-won. That’s good news for Shuggie Otis, a singer-songwriter revered by DJs and crate-diggers for a handful of early ’70s recordings that became funk benchmarks. Otis was assumed to be a recluse, but it turns out he’s been steadily writing and recording since he dropped Inspiration Information nearly 40 years ago.
So why has his comeback taken this long? It was 12 years ago that Luaka Bop first reissued that 1974 masterpiece, repackaging it with a few choice cuts from his 1971 disc, Freedom Flight, including the exquisite, kaleidoscopic pop of “Strawberry Letter 23,” Otis’s best known song. Beyond Inspiration’s sun-kissed title track, its strongest cuts were experimental ones like the Caribbean-flavored “Aht Uh Mi Hed,” and organ-flecked “XL-30,” both of which relied on syncopated, synthetic beats from an early-model drum machine for a distinctive sound. At the time it was ahead of the curve yet it turned out to be Otis’s last album until now: Epic/Legacy’s new reissue of Inspiration adds a handful of unreleased tracks from that era plus a bonus disc, Wings of Love, which compiles unreleased tunes recorded from 1975–2000.
While the set holds a handful of gems, the overwrought epic from which it takes its name won’t win Otis any new fans. Nevertheless, this two-night stand is a can’t-miss event for anyone hoping to witness firsthand an artist whose name deserves to be included in any discussion of Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, or for those simply happy to see Otis back onstage.