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Overcoming the Competition

12 Jan

Gorgeous CDs from Seamus Walshe, Patsy Moloney and John Regan

Irish music competitions sound like a nightmare to me, what with all the stories of young wannabe champions passing out and vomiting with the stress, and the bitter disputes over the scoring.  Yet there are good things that come from it. One of these is the camaraderie and friendship between old sparring partners. Tom Dunne, my friend and session co-leader in New Jersey, is full of stories of exploits with his fellow contestants and subsequent buddies from competitions back in the day, in particular Seamus Walshe and Patsy Moloney. They  have recently both albums which are well worth your attention.

seamus-trad-coverSeamus Walshe plays the box in a very personal style. In the liner notes of one of Seamus’s previous CDs Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion  Joe Burke likened his approach to that of an architect (Seamus’ chosen profession).  At the time, I considered that notion fanciful, preferring to just savor the luxurious experience of having that CD on repeat for a leisurely drive across the Canadian Rockies. Now I get the architect thing. There is definite evidence of a stately, elegant and logical form, yet lyrical and emotional touches abound.

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There are many examples of this on the new CD Turas: on the “Long Drop” Seamus shapes the first tune with phrasing and dynamic subtleties; as Eimear Reilly’s fiddle comes in for “Fred Finn’s Reel”, the stricter tempo and the “sit up and beg” figures enhance both the swing and the sadness in the tune; “The Torn Jacket” works as the release with a more straight-ahead approach (albeit with outstanding unison triplets).

The strong windswept melody of “Margaret’s Waltz” is stated with bold accordion and fiddle lines, leading into “Louis’ Waltz”, a staple of New York sessions (also known as “Dermot Grogan’s Favourite”). Here it is given a totally different treatment with the harp, fiddle and accordion creating a dense texture with the fiddle adding harmonic variations. The Poppy Leaf is another commonly recorded tune (twice by Tony DeMarco , and a stunning interpretation by Brian Rooney) which still gets a fresh treatment by Seamus and Grainne Hambly on harp. They take a relaxed pace, resisting the temptation to stuff the high part with notes, and smoothly transition into Charlie Lennon’s Rossinver Braes with its exquisite interplay of box and harp.

Turas means trip or pilgrimage and this album echoes that reflective note.  While it doesn’t have some of the exuberance of Seamus’ previous recordings it is an album of great sensitivity and maturity. It is also noteworthy that he has brought along some famous musical friends for this particular journey, including Alec Finn, Charlie Lennon, Noel Hill and Steve Cooney.

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“The Moment is Now. The Time is Now.” – Shuggie Otis at Music Hall, Williamsburg April 19th 2013

2 Feb

Have you heard the one about the lost prince of musical royalty, a poet dreaming of strawberry-scented love letters, who slept for 40 years only to wake when the world needed him again, returning with the “information to inspire us to be happy”?

Okay he didn’t sleep, but Shuggie Otis was a long time off the radar, not recording since 1974 and only gigging sporadically. That hasn’t stopped his psychedelic soul classics being part of the soundtrack of many hip lives – most notably Quentin Tarantino weaved “Strawberry Letter 23” throughout his 1997 blaxploitation masterpiece “Jackie Brown”.

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Shuggie’s pedigree is impeccable – his father Johnny was a multi-faceted R & B and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, and their family musical history describes the complete arc of black American music of the last 100 years (although their heritage was in in fact Greek).

Since his father’s death in January 2012 Shuggie has been enticed to share his virtuoso guitar, sophisticated songwriting and genre-defying musical vision with the world again, and he came to New York for a one-nighter at BB King’s Club on April 18th 2013. To quote one of his Billboard album reviews, it promises to be “Unbelievably Wonderful”

RightSideOfDrums - Early in gig - 5834You could sense the expectation when Shuggie Otis came onstage at the Music Hall, on the surface a slightly fragile figure in a rock star take on a pilgrim frock coat.

On this night in Brooklyn, he took off his coat both literally and figuratively.

 

The early audience excitement found its release when he sang the first line of the opener ”Inspiration Information” after a tension-building introduction of punchy horn lines, swirling organ and Shuggie’s whimsical vocal extemporizing. As he put it after the gig, “The crowd was really with me”. Indeed they were.

 While in the majority the audience were a younger, more hipsterish crowd than the previous night there was living testament to Shuggie’s claim “I’m blessed to have  fans from teens to the 80s and 90s” when the trumpeter and musical director Larry Douglas recognized a beautiful old lady having the time of her life in the  audience, he beamed and got down off the stage to have picture taken with her. This was an all-inclusive party. Shuggie was relaxed in this setting, and if he didn’t already have the crowd on his side he cemented it with his declaration “The Moment is Now The Time is Now” and the introduction to Aht Up My Head of “when I wrote this I must have been…”

It takes a special kind of band to be able to handle all the genres that Shuggie travels through,  and the “Shuggie Otis Rite” is a powerful and flexible outfit able to seamlessly transcend genres, eating up blues, funk and jazz grooves, and is all the better for consisting of family and long-time musical friends. There are noticeable axes within the group:  “cousin” Russell “Swang” Stewart (keyboards) and James Manning (bass) delivery ferocious funk; the horn section of Albert King (tenor sax), Michael Turre (baritone sax and flute) and Larry Douglas (on trumpet) swing happily astride blues and jazz idioms.

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Shuggie and son Eric fill the blues guitar heroes spot.
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Nicky Otis drives the lot of them from behind the kit.

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As well as the obvious family members, the band features other “old boys” of the Johnny Otis R&B touring revue groups and in many ways the band is a reincarnation of those famous caravans.

The band name of “The Shuggie Otis Rite” makes perfect sense with their togetherness, musical and otherwise.

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Highlights included the blues rock of “Me and My Woman” (think of a sound in the zone of 1970s Allman Brothers and The Kinsey Report), the old-school blues of “Sweet Thang” with its classic horn and organ arrangements (bringing to mind B.B. King’s line-ups of the ‘50s and ‘60s), the jazz-tinged Steely Dan-ish soul of “Trying to Get Close to You”, and plenty of other moments which were just – well – “Shuggie.” These included an impressive re-imagination of “Inspiration Information” with a loose funkier horn-driven feel and effective use of call and response vocals, and a rich orchestration of “Aht Up My Head” with guitar and flute atmospherics, a delicate underplayed riff in the original becoming a punchy horn line, and a delicious funk tenor tax solo taking us home.

The exuberance of the encore “Ice Cold Daydream” captured the spirit of the evening. This was no longer the wacky funk ditty of 1971 but a wild funk party where the band could stretch out and share the carnival atmosphere with the Brooklyn faithful. Behold the Shuggie Otis experience  – a powerhouse band, a miraculous guitarist,  and an indomitable spirit.

Words by Tony Horswill                                                            Photos by Arlene A. Wallace