Concord Music Group, Inc., the label that bought Fantasy Records (owners of the legendary Stax Records catalog) in 2006, has just released a 3-CD set of music from the 1972 Wattstax festival in Los Angeles, California. This festival, conceived as a “black Woodstock” featuring nearly every artist signed to the label at the time and a $1, tax deductible admission price, continues to reverberate for many today as one of the most significant events in African-American musical history.
This is not, of course, the first time that the music from Wattstax has been documented or released on disc, and I will spend the remainder of this review trying to help unravel the mystery of what makes this collection different from its companions. Roger Armstrong, the producer of this compilation, seemed to recognize this conundrum (or someone did), because the first thing that follows each track listing in the accompanying booklet is an outline of what appeared where in previous releases. Such releases include Wattstax, The Living Word/Live Concert Music from the Original Movie Soundtrack (Stax 2-3010/2SCD-88007-2); Wattstax, The Living Word, vol. 2 (Stax 2-3018); and there are also two tracks from Isaac Hayes at Wattstax (SCD-88042-2). All in all, about 1/3 of the selections on this compilation have never before been released (17 out of 47 tracks in all).
So why another Wattstax release, you ask? Rob Bowman, award-winning interpreter and documentarian of historical recordings of popular music and Professor in Ethnomusicology at York University, provides an answer in his 17-pages of liner notes accompanying the set. Of the first two Wattstax releases mentioned above, Bowman describes them as not being “quite what they seemed.” At least two tracks on the first release, issued also as singles within weeks of the release of both the film and album, were presented as “live” Wattstax recordings with crowd noise dubbed in; as Bowman explains, “the Stax marketing brass were obviously hoping the 45s would benefit from whatever promotional momentum was generated off the blitz of advertising and media attention that accompanied everything Wattstax in the first few months of 1973.” With regard to the second release, Bowman describes it as “an odd conglomeration of Wattstax recordings, live club and church recordings, and studio tracks. In fact, over half of the original album, including all of sides 3 and 4, did not actually emanate from the Wattstax event. According to Al Bell [former owner of Stax Records], this was done consciously to use the overall Wattstax phenomenon as a marketing tool for some of the company’s artists who had not actually played the concert.” All of this is to underscore Bowman’s analysis of Wattstax as a multifaceted endeavor from the beginning: both a large-scale event with important social and political significance as well as a brilliantly constructed marketing concept.
So, what makes this anthology different from the others is its emphasis on real live performances that were an authentic part of the original festival. Particularly noteworthy new tracks include the first 8 minutes of the 18-minute festival opener “Salvation Symphony” (played by the 32-piece Wattstax ’72 Orchestra – but why only 8 minutes of it?); Deborah Manning’s stirring rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” The Rance Allen Group’s “Lying on the Truth”; and Albert King’s cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” among many others. The music is still incredible, as on other Wattstax releases. If you already own some of the earlier recordings, buy this compilation to set “the record” straight; if you don’t, you would be wise to start here.
For further information you might wish to check out the following:
Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. Rob Bowman’s award-winning history of the label.
Wattstax. A synopsis of the film as part of PBS’s “POV” showcase for independent, non-fiction films.
“Watts Riots“. An article in the Los Angeles Times from 8/11/2005 featuring some of the people who were involved in the event that partially inspired the Wattstax festival
Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott