Friday, August 31, 2007

Watt Stax

I am very excited about this compliation. Trust me, this is something to buy.

As the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles was still reeling from the effects of the riots that tore it apart in 1966, a different epicenter of black culture was taking similar pains to recover and rebuild. Stax Records was hit with a series of events in the span of a year that would have sunk almost any other independent label: Warner Bros. bought Stax distributor Atlantic Records, swiping the Stax master tapes and distribution rights from label co-founder Jim Stewart. A December 1967 plane crash claimed the lives of marquee star Otis Redding and all but two members of session band the Bar-Kays. And five months afterwards, Martin Luther King-- a man who embodied the racially-integrated social philosophy that Stax couldn't exist without-- was assassinated in the same Memphis motel where Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd co-wrote the #1 r&b hit "Knock on Wood". But as Stax's fortunes changed in the early 70s-- bolstered by the success of artists like Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor-- a combination of financial uninhibitedness and social goodwill drove the label to organize a concert that would both showcase the label's expanding roster and serve as an inspiration to a community that the outside world considered second-class.

Seven years after their first revue tour outside Memphis saw a number of their artists stranded in Los Angeles during the Watts riots, Stax returned to L.A. and put on one hell of a show. Some called it "the Black Woodstock", which isn't completely accurate; the cost was a dollar more than free, everyone on the bill was great (Albert King or Sha Na Na? Not a hard choice), and the attendees tended to dress a lot better. As a concert, film, and live recording, Wattstax is possibly the definitive r&b festival; only James Brown's shows have packed more energy and showmanship into a live set, and every artist-- from the Oscar-winning Hayes to the no-hit wonders that gigged in clubs around town in the week before the main event at the Los Angeles Coliseum-- is either at the peak of their artistic powers or damn well plays like it. Stax's 3xCD box set commemorating the event, re-released in the general vicinity of its 35th anniversary (though this particular collection first appeared in 2003), isn't the most important document of the show-- that'd be the concert film, directed by Mel Stuart (less than two years removed from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory)-- but it's easy to get an idea of every extra moment that made the whole experience legendary: Kim Weston's rendition of black national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing", Richard Pryor's comic yet cutting interstitials, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson's legendary introduction, which incorporated his poem "I Am - Somebody" into a 100,000-strong call-and-response.

The concert proper is well-represented here, and it goes a long way toward showing how Stax was able to stay solvent in the early 70s even without longtime standbys like Sam & Dave or Booker T. & the M.G.'s. Not that there isn't any of the old guard represented here: Eddie Floyd busts his ass during a forceful rendition of "Knock on Wood", where he spends just about every moment he's not singing urging the crowd to get up and clap their hands. Carla Thomas reaches even further back, peppering her extensive set with a roll call of r&b's phases in the 60s, from 1960's post-doo-wop classic "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)" (which gets an absolutely rapturous response from the first syllable) to 1966's slice of prime Hayes/Porter r&b "B-A-B-Y" to the churning, Southern-fried soul-funk of 1969's "I Like What You're Doing (To Me)". And Carla's father Rufus, one of Stax's first hitmakers and a graying 55 at the time, commands the stage with a rapid-fire succession of his iconic dance-craze songs-- likeably dippy novelties on record, but live they were the catalyst for a glorious stage-rushing Funky Chicken contest.

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