Deep Grooves CD Review: Wattstax!! – Various Artists (Stax Records)

This 3 CD set (count ’em) chronicles one of the most important concert events in the history of music and is a monster! But what a monster it is! Thanks to the people running the new, reinvigorated Stax label, music fans who weren’t able to attend or pick up the vinyl versions released on the original Stax label will finally be able to experience this great event in musical history. Stax truly was one of the most visionary labels in existence, and this expansive concert proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Black-owned labels, especially succesful ones, were a rarity. Stax was always the little label that could and the upstart constantly battled big ol’ Motown for R&B supremecy and though Motown had always been the clear winner, Stax had seen their stock rise significantly thanks to a surprising number of hits. Stax’s success always kind of confounded the higher ups at Motown who couldn’t understand how raw, gutbucket soul from the south was becoming so popular. Like most labels, it was always part of Motown’s plan to garner mass acceptance, and in doing so had slicked up their brand of R&B, making it more palatable for the masses (read: white people) so they could garner huge sales. Nothing wrong with that. Music is a business and Motown wanted to survive and did so in a business where it was always (and still is) hard to gain a foothold. Thing is, Stax came along and just decided to be as soulful as they wanted to be and had a bunch of hits on their own. Sure, the hits were not as plentiful and as wide-reaching as Motown’s, but hits are hits. At Stax, the artist was the key where at Motown, it was the song. Motown’s producers and staff writers crafted the hell out of songs to the point any of Motown’s acts could have taken any of those songs and had hits on them. At Stax, It was the personality of the artist as much as the songs. Otis Redding was bigger than any song her ever sang, as was Isaac Hayes and any of Stax’s hit-making artists. Those artists had good songs, but they made the songs their own and didn’t let the producers make them follow the cookie cutter formula. As they battled it out over the decade, Motown eventually decided to uproot their headquarters and move out to California, obstensibly to be closer to the movie and TV business, where Motown felt there was an opportunity to grow the label into other areas. Not surprisingly, Stax followeed suit.

Opening offices in Los Angeles, Stax was eager to make its’ presence felt in the community and decided to become linked with the Watts Summer Festival, a yearly event designed to boost the community of Watts and help the area overcome the effects of the mulktiple race riots which had occured there in the late ’60’s. Stax decided to stage a one-day concert on the last day of the festival and to make it a bombastic event decided to include just about every artist on the Stax roster at the event. Hoping to make this their first theatrical release Stax made sure the concert was filemd and the music was recorded. At the time two albums of live material was releasedf and some other cuts ended up dribbling out on some later live recordings under the name of the artist in question.

This set brings together those albums along with a bunch of previously unreleased performances from the show, put together to resemble the flow of the concert itself. While some performances of several jazz acts at the concert have yet to see the light of day, this set pretty much gives an accurate picture of the breadth and scope of the various forms of R&B presenton the label’s roster including gospel. Even black comedy is represented, supplied by the great Richard Pryor. Artists on this set include Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, and a host of other soul stars. The sound of this disc is stellar! While it is obvious the event is live, the recordings are great and the people responsible for mastering and engineering this set should be given an award. This could quite possibly be the most important soul music release in the past five years.

Anyone interested in the history of soul music would definitely like this set. Talk about well worth the money. The great packaging alone is worth the cash, let alone all of the music, which is just absolutely priceless. Soul fans gotta get this!