In 1972, Stax Records was second only to Motown as America's most successful black-owned record company, and as part of an ambitious bid to grow into a multimedia empire, the Memphis-based label had opened offices in Los Angeles and was eager to announce its presence in the community. The Watts Summer Festival was an annual celebration staged in the beleaguered Watts neighborhood of L.A., a mostly African-American community that had been scarred by race riots in the late '60s, and in 1972 Stax did something special for the occasion: it staged an all-day concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum on the final day of the Watts festival, with nearly every artist on the Stax roster appearing live on-stage and tickets priced at only a dollar. Over 110, 000 people attended the show, a camera crew was on hand to capture the proceedings for a feature film, and a mobile recording truck committed the whole show to tape. Two albums featuring material from the Wattstax festival appeared in 1972 and 1973, but both contained studio recordings along with material from the concert, and Wattstax: Music from the Wattstax Festival and Film is a three-CD set that brings together the lion's share of the previously released live material from the show along with a handful of previously unreleased performances recorded that day. This set tries to give a sense of the size, shape, and flow of the massive concert, opening with "Salvation Symphony" (a grand-scale orchestral piece written by Dale Warren, who led the big band that backed most of the performers) and an invocation by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and closing with headliner Isaac Hayes winding up the crowd with "Theme from Shaft." Along the way, the festival attempted to showcase the breadth of both the African-American musical experience and the Stax artists, touching on gospel, blues and several flavors of rhythm & blues, though the jazz acts which appeared at the show didn't make the cut for this set. While these three discs feel a bit overstuffed, there's a wealth of memorable music here and some pleasant surprises, too.
Despite the absence of Yvonne Staples, who was sick that day, the Staple Singers turn in an engaging and deeply moving set, especially on "I Like the Things About Me," and while Lee Sain, William Bell, and Eddie Floyd only get one song each, they all make the most of their time on-stage. The Emotions offer a mesmerizing take on "Peace Be Still" in a performance recorded at an L.A. storefront church. The Bar-Kays tear into a deliriously funky set with the frantic "Son of Shaft" and "I Can't Turn You Loose," and David Porter makes a rare live appearance showing he was as strong a vocalist as he was a songwriter. The Rance Allen Group's strong gospel-funk is impressive, as is the Soul Children's furious "I Don't Know What This World Is Coming To" (the latter nearly steal the show with their second number, the raucous "Hearsay"). Carla Thomas sounds like soul royalty in her five-song set, and her dad Rufus Thomas throws the party into high gear as he and his band percolate through "The Funky Chicken" and "The Breakdown." Isaac Hayes was clearly the star attraction, and the crowd goes nuts as he lays into "Theme from Shaft," and it's a shame we don't get to hear more of him, though his Wattstax set appears in full on an album of its own. As good as the music is, and most of it's very good, what's most special about this collection is the sense of optimism and hope in a society struggling with the social ills of the early '70s that pervades these performances; at a time when the hope born of the Civil Rights Movement was starting to fade and cynicism was taking its place, Jesse Jackson's chant of "I am somebody," taken up by the 110,000 in attendance, sounds like a defiant cry for a better world, and that higher purpose makes this more than just another recording of classic '70s soul and funk, but a celebration of both life and music.