The veteran soul voices of Aaron Neville and Shuggie Otis converge on Chicago | Bleader

The veteran soul voices of Aaron Neville and Shuggie Otis converge on Chicago


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Aaron Neville
  • Sarah A. Friedman
  • Aaron Neville
Tomorrow night two of the most distinctive and original voices of soul music perform in Chicago—and for both Aaron Neville and Shuggie Otis the connection to soul is ephemeral in part because they've routinely worked outside of its wide margins. Neville, of course, is a legendary figure of New Orleans music with a voice that's drifted easily between gospel, soul, rock, and more, while Otis was a child prodigy on guitar who made his last album in 1974 and has been largely out of sight since not long after.

A few years ago Neville teamed up with producer Joe Henry to make I Know I've Been Changed (EMI Gospel), a solid if unspectacular effort, and earlier this year he changed speeds again with My True Story (Blue Note), which has been billed as the singer's tribute to the doo-wop era, but it's more of a salute to early rock 'n' roll songs that made great use of vocal harmonies. Neville sounds great, although his voice doesn't always fit the more raucous material—like the Clovers classic "Money Honey" or Hank Ballard's immortal sex song "Work With Me Annie"—but he kills it on the ballads over and over again, including the title track (originally by the Jive Five) and version of the Impressions gem "Gypsy Woman." The album was coproduced by Don Was and Keith Richards—who plays remarkably ordinary guitar throughout the entire record—and with only perfunctory, largely forgettable harmony vocals, it achieves a weirdly bland balance of early rock 'n' roll aesthetics and geriatric energy. Neville plays North Shore Center in Skokie tomorrow. Below you can check out his version of "Ting a Ling, " another Clovers song also recorded by Laverne Baker, below.

Shuggie Otis
  • B+ for Mochilla
  • Shuggie Otis
As the son of the influential and prolific LA R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie grew up immersed in music and by the time he was a teenager he was working in his father's band. Within a few years he had made several blues-rock and soul albums for Epic. In 1974 he released his masterpiece Inspiration Information, around the same time that he was invited to replace Mick Taylor as a guitarist in the Rolling Stones. The record puzzled listeners and Epic did little to promote it. It sank without much of a trace, followed by Otis himself, although in a New York Times feature that ran yesterday he insists he didn't go anywhere. By the time Luaka Bop reissued Inspiration Information, enhanced with a few tracks from Otis' third album Freedom Flight (from 1971), including his version of "Strawberry Letter 23," which the Brothers Johnson would score a big hit with in 1977, Otis was the quintessential cult figure. He played a few poorly received shows around the reissue's release, but he's pretty much been absent ever since.

This all makes the arrival of a second reissue of Inspiration Information (Legacy/Epic), packaged with a second disc, called Wings of Love, of previously unissued songs made between 1975 and 2000 (the bulk of these 13 tracks are from the 70s), almost as surprising as the fact that Otis is in the midst of a tour that brings him to Lincoln Hall Tuesday and Wednesday (the second night is sold out). The music on Wings of Love is a mixed bag, for sure, but it's far more interesting than I expected—a kind of hodge-podge of soul-rock, proto-slow jams, and modern R&B that's hard to assess in hindsight—and on just a couple of spins. Reports from his recent shows have been solid, and while it seems absurd to expect Otis to return to the singular form of Inspiration Information, it no longer seems like his current show is the train wreck his 2001 efforts were reported to have been.

Time has done nothing to diminish the power and beauty of Inspiration Information, a kind of proto bedroom soul record that made pioneering use of drum machines and deployed a radically dialed-down, intimate sort of delivery, framing the singer's fragile, sweet, and mildly distant voice masterfully. Below you can check out "Aut Uh Mi Hed," which is not only my favorite song from Inspiration Information, but also probably one of my favorite songs ever.

Today's playlist:

Sophie Agnel, Capsizing Moments (Emanem)
Jackson C. Frank, Jackson C. Frank (Castle)
E.J. Strickland Quintet, In This Day (Strick Muzik)
La Pupuña, All Right Penoso!!! (Ná Music)
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Bulletproof Brass! (Pheelco)