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Good Review of a bad concert: Shuggie Otis
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Good Review of a bad concert: Shuggie Otis


    It was 27 years between the release of rhythm and blues artist Shuggie Otis' last album and his headlining show at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium on Saturday night.
   And the two hours he played seemed even longer.
    This was a show so distastefully toxic it should have come with a hazard label. It did, in a way. His long disappearance should have been warning enough.
   From the moment the son of rhythm and blues great Johnny Otis took thestage, 40 minutes late, the audience must have felt like the Titanic's captain, staring out at all that ice.
   ''Gimme a few minutes here to get set up,'' were his opening words.
   Then, Otis said to the band, which he appeared to be meeting for the first time, ''We're going to do 'Picture of Love.' The drummer knows it. Let's get on it. B flat.' ''
   The band members looked terrified. Otis would point to one to solo, while another had already started. Several of them tried to save the night, though. Nick Otis, his brother, on drums was solid; and every time Benny Armstrong on trombone or the sax player, whose name changed with each of Otis' introductions, soloed, they created blues with a passion.
   The trouble was, they had apparently not rehearsed or even heard some of the songs Otis tried to play. Think of a high school garage band getting together for the first time and you have a good idea of what followed.
   The horn players kept wandering farther and farther to the side of the stage and away from Otis, looking as if they wished they could disappear. For several songs, they were playing behind a curtain at the side of the stage.
   Otis ran through improvised versions of blues classics and Jimi Hendrix covers, changing words and beats to ''Little Wing,'' ''I Just Wanna Make Love to You'' and ''Sweet Loving Mama,'' during which he made a plea to the pimps in the audience to treat their employees better. ''Don't be evil unless you have to,'' he told them.
   He covered Sly Stone's ''Everyday People'' -- twice -- and played ''Strawberry Letter 23'' and ''Inspiration Information,'' the title song of his brilliant 1974 album.
   There was an underlying sadness to a performance so bad it was comical at times.
   This was Otis' big second chance, and it was clear that he again missed the boat.
   Otis was riding high in 1974. His guitar playing was so well-respected he was offered a spot in the Rolling Stones. You can hear why in his funky, multilayered ''Inspiration Information,'' which brings to mind the best of Prince and Sly Stone. It was re-released on CD this year on Luaka Bop, the label founded by former Talking Head David Byrne, and it holds up just fine.
   In fact, with the current rebirth of soul, rekindled for those who missed it the first time by performers such as Macy Gray and D'Angelo, Otis' album sounds like one of the best releases of the past year.
   But after that album, Otis disappeared in a haze of drugs and paranoia. He was brought back by the success of the re-release.
   The Fillmore, almost at its 1,250 capacity for $25 a pop, had a surprising number of teenagers in the audience. If they came to get in touch with the roots of soul, they were disappointed. Many were in the lobby a half hour into the fiasco. By the time Otis finished his set, most had fled.
   ''I want to thank you for coming out,'' he said at one point. ''I love you all, even if I don't show it all the time.''
   There were flashes of a fine musician as he played the organ, bass and lead guitar with moments of panache.
   But the performance kept falling apart. Several times he yelled at the sound man, even when he was the one who dropped a cranked-up bass on the floor and caused an explosion of feedback. He complained that his organ was too complicated to play these days.
   It was like some bad made-for-TV movie about a destroyed life. Only it would have appeared too phony for a movie. No one would have believed anyone could be so bad, or that people would stay through so much of it. At the end, there were almost 100 people still cheering him on.
   Others in the back, perhaps waiting for the free posters given out after every Fillmore show, were begging him to stop.
   During a set of encores, after a particularly out of tune ''Everyday People,'' it looked like it would mercifully end. But Otis came back.
   ''I feel like I owe you one more cause I was so out of tune,'' he explained, bringing to mind the Yogi Berra-ism about the food being terrible and the portions too small.
   Then the last holdouts, many of whom were covering this one-shot San Francisco show for publications, trudged out. (He did two shows in Los Angeles last week to similar response.)
   As they walked by the Boom Boom Room across the street, other audiencemembers who had left earlier spotted the posters and yelled out.
   ''Those are collector's items,'' said one. ''They should say 'I survived Shuggie Otis.' ''  
Shuggie Otis sings the third song of a deplorable set Saturday at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
Shuggie Otis, under the Fillmore lights, hit the basement level Saturday night.  

 Updated Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 9:02:22 PM by Bradley Kava -
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