When you look at the two previous Wattstax soundtrack releases and watch the original Wattxstax film, it’s easy to get confused with who performed when, in what order, and at what location, especially when you toss in the release of the Wattstax sequel The Living Word soundtrack. So in an effort to collect all previous soundtrack releases into one three-disc set, on August 28th, the same day as its 50th anniversary, Stax re-issued both the original Wattstax and The Living Word as a comprehensive “best of” Wattstax, including additional previously unreleased Stax tracks.
On the raw power of soul, funk, and blues–and a taste of Richard Pryor’s controversial stand up comedy, this updated collection encapsulates anything and everything having to do with the original Wattstax festival. The re-issue does offer a more complete feel of the social atmosphere surrounding and inspiring Wattstax which took place at the L. A. Coliseum in 1972 as 112,000 mostly African-American fans rallied together on the strength and solidarity of soul music to reclaim their black pride, combat racism, and address the economic and social fallout of the Watts riots seven years prior.
Writing this review forced me to think about the significances of the context of my concert experiences this past summer at Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. Beyond the performances, what stood out to me the most was how much the fans who attended Wattstax stood to lose and how, at a certain level, they risked much more than just the $1.00 it cost to get in. Sure the crowds that gathered for Lolla and Pitchfork laid down more per ticket, but what was really risked besides money? Yes, it’s different here in the 21st century as both the music industry and the fans seem to be simultaneously enjoying each other’s company and at war while still, regardless of all the low record sales and file sharing lawsuits, some really fantastic music is created, performed, and enjoyed. While comparing the Wattstax with the modern day music festival seems a culturally and contextually moot point, there’s still something to be learned from what went on at Wattstax as the flooding of live music festivals appears only to be picking up going into 2008. What appears to have made Wattstax the historical event–it was eventually coined the “Black Woodstock”–is that both the fans and the artists had something to lose by attending and performing, and that element and sense of risk is what makes the performances legendary.
It’s a trip you’ll probably have to take in several sittings, but listening to the Staple Singers, Richard Pryor, Isaac Hayes and the rest of Stax Records’ legendary list of artists is a ride guaranteed to put a smile on any soul or funk fan’s face for days. You can’t deny the nagging desire to compare what you hear on this soundtrack to what you might hear and experience at a musical festival today, and begin to ask yourself, how exactly did we get from Wattstax in 1972 to Lollapalooza in 2007?
From the riveting “I am–Somebody” introduction speech by the Reverend Jesse Jackson–then a Stax spoken-word recording artist–to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft performances, there’s little doubt as to the motivation and inspiration behind Wattstax and its performers.
Following Jackson’s introduction are five songs performed by the Staple Singers, who with “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha na boom boom)” get the grooving going, but it’s Father Staples who brings the crowd to a crescendo with a vulnerable and improvisational rap about “being proud about the things about himself and being black.” If you had to place the Wattstax in a sonic time capsule, it’s this five song set that would sum up all the soulful and culturally poignant self-expression of Wattstax.
Revisiting the Wattstax soundtrack and the film, I had similar longings, wishing I was there in the crowd, as when I watched Woodstock and other legendary and culturally defining live festival documentaries that took place before I was born. There’s a part of me that wishes I could’ve been there but experiencing Wattstax in 2007 via this re-issue nonetheless has allowed my love and appreciation for hip hop to grow, even if I couldn’t necessarily be there in person. And as the crowd clapped and cheered, I also wondered, since the concert took place in 1972, if some of my favorite hip hop artists (or possibly their parents) might’ve been in the crowd that day soaking up all the soul, funk and blues with future plans to unleash what they heard onto a new generation thirty years later.