" Music from the Wattstax Festival and Film "

Standing The Test Of Time?,(12/05/07)

By 1972 Stax Records had proven itself with a constant run of hits and possessed a roster of artists that made them one of the strongest labels of their time. It wasn't always easy for the mighty label from Memphis, Tennessee, especially when they lost Otis Redding in a plane crash, but they managed to consistently rise to the top, especially when Isaac Hayes became a superstar and was able to successfully cross over to an extremely wide audience.

The concept of Wattstax was to put together a large concert that would attempt to bring the Los Angeles community of Watts together and offer hope for the future, via the glorious music. To make this event even more appealing, the festival tickets were sold for just one dollar and Los Angeles Memorial Stadium was filled to capacity with over one hundred thousand people in attendance. For those who could not attend, Stax made arrangements with two local radio stations to broadcast the event. Stax also had the good sense to hire Wally Heider to record the performance for a forthcoming vinyl release, plus they also filmed the performance.

Most of the 1972 Stax roster played at Wattstax, as many of their hit-makers were in attendance such as Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, the Staple Singers, Carla and Rufus Thomas, William Bell, Rance Allen, and the Bar-Kays were all among those who graced the stage that day. But inexplicably missing in action was the band that help formulate the Stax sound, Booker T. & the MG's. Nonetheless, highlights include five very memorable performances by the Staple Singers, the timeless Eddie "Knock on Wood" Floyd, three by The Bar-Kays, and four by David Porter.

Little Milton opens Disk 3 and storms through a seven-minute version of "Open the Door to Your Heart," followed by a spirited version of "Backfield in Motion" by Mel and Tim. Johnnie Taylor's performance of "Steal Away" rambles on for over eight minutes and it's pretty boring and could have been left on the cutting room floor. But man, Albert King was on fire covering Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor," and I would have been happier if more than one tune from King Albert's set were included.

I thought five Carla Thomas tracks was a bit much, but Daddy Rufus saves the day with three of his extremely funky classics, "The Breakdown," "Do the Funky Chicken," and "Do the Funky Penguin." The two tracks by the Soul Children (backed by the Rufus Thomas Band) meander for over fourteen minutes and have too much talk and jive. Appropriately closing this three-CD box set is Isaac Hayes' smash hit "Theme from Shaft," and actually I felt a little shafted (not by Isaac and his band's performance which is solid) by the fact that "Shaft" is the only Isaac Hayes track on Wattstax, and it's a three-CD set, go figure.

Not long ago the Concord Group acquired Stax and they have done a fine job of celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Stax Records this year, plus with Wattstax they have digitally re-mastered the original double LP and expanded that recording with an additional sixty-plus minutes of new tracks. But, unfortunately, this 1972 festival sounds a bit dated and does not weather the test of time too well - both with a majority of the performances as well as the thin sound.

Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com