Friday, March 3, 2023

CD Review: Various Artists' The Best of Wattstax (2023)

The Wattstax concert was one of the most consequential and influential live events in pop culture history. Organized by Stax Records as a benefit show to commemorate the anniversary of the 1965 riots in the Watts community in Los Angeles, the concert was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20th, 1972. Performers included nearly the entire Stax roster at the time, stylistically running the gamut from soul, gospel, and blues to jazz and funk. The label released a double-LP set of the concert’s highlights a few months later to critical acclaim. The event was also filmed by producer David L. Wolper and directed by Mel Stuart (best known for 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory); released in 1973 as Wattstax, the concert film won a Golden Globe Award for “Best Documentary Film.”

In recognition of the event’s 50th anniversary, CraftRecordings has released the entire freakin’ concert in various formats (more about which below). We’re only going to look at the condensed, twenty-track The Best of Wattstax CD here, which offers up highlights from the concert as “hand-picked” by Stax Records. The set kicks off with an amazing performance by R&B legend Kim Weston, singing the ‘Black National Anthem,’ “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that created somewhat of an undeserved controversy when performed at this year’s Super Bowl game. Released by Stax as a single at the time, proceeds were donated to the United Negro College Fund. Weston knocks it out of the park with a powerful, Gospel-tinged performance. It’s a great way to kick off the CD, but then The Best of Wattstax gets mired down by a handful of Gospel performances, highlighted by the ever-welcome Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There”) and including songs by Deborah Manning and Eric Mercury.

Luckily, The Best of Wattstax rights the ship with Lee Sain’s effervescent take on “Them Hot Pants” and pretty much rocks the house from then on. As talented as Stax’s Gospel artists may have been, people bought the label’s releases for scorching soul, rowdy funk, and lowdown blues tunes, and that’s what you’ll find on 75% of The Best of Wattstax. While mainstream talents like Isaac Hayes (“Theme From Shaft”), Carla Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”), Rufus Thomas (“The Breakdown”), and Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”) put Memphis soul on the map in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it’s the lesser-known talents like the Soul Children (“Hearsay”), the Rance Allen Group (the funkalicious “Lying On the Truth”), and William Bell (who proves himself to be the equal of anybody on the soul scene with “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”) that has had collectors’ digging through the crates for better than a half-century. Throw in stellar performances by blues legend Albert King (“I’ll Play the Blues For You”), the Temprees (“Explain It To Her Mama”), and the Bar-Kays (“I Can’t Turn You Loose”) and you have one helluva collection!

As mentioned above, Craft is also releasing Wattstax: The Complete Concert in both a six-CD and ten-album vinyl versions that feature every performance from the event, including spoken word interludes. If your bank account allows for luxury this month, or maybe you have a fat tax refund, consider investing in Soul’d Out: The Complete Wattstax Collection, a twelve-CD box set comprised of the entire L.A. Memorial Coliseum concert as well as recordings from the Summit Club, including 31 previously-unreleased performances and a 76-page, full-color book. Really, you can’t go wrong no matter which version you end up buying! (Stax Records/Craft Recordings, released February 24th, 2023)

Also on That Devil Music:
Isaac Hayes’ Stax Classics CD review
Carla Thomas’ Stax Classics CD review
Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign CD review

Buy the CD from Amazon: The Best of Wattstax

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