I spend a fair number of keystrokes chatting you fine people up about the virtues of vinyl, but I spent last Saturday night having a fling with a different physical medium — the ol’ Digital Video Disc (or “Digital Versatile Disc,” depending on who you ask). A coworker who has a great taste in/encyclopedic knowledge of music lent me a DVD of what is considered one of the greatest soul concerts of all time — Stax/Volt Revue: Live in Norway 1967. I managed to dig up YouTube clips of some of the Oslo show’s high points, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts, starting with the night’s first act, Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
Booker T. & the M.G.’s
This is a bit off topic, but if you like music and also like knowing things (my family watched Jeopardy! during dinner when I was growing up, so it’s fused with my DNA), I bet you know this feeling: You’re at a concert/listening to an album/watching a concert DVD at home on a Saturday night, and all of a sudden, you get a hunch about something. Could be that the song you’re listening to is really a cover, or that the instrumental break you just heard was been sampled in a rap beat. You turn to the nearest Internet-enabled device, type a few words into Google and BAM! You were right! Maybe there’s an “I told you so” involved, or maybe you’re the only one in the universe who knew this mini-drama was going on inside your head. Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you were 100%, deliciously, splendiferously right.
One of those moments fell into my lap just a few minutes after pressing play, when Booker T. & the M.G.’s were settling into that familiar “Green Onions” groove. The longer I watched, noting Booker T.’s perfect execution of the organ parts, absorbing the searing tone of Steve Cropper’s guitar, a hunch started to develop. “This is too accurate… wait a second… THIS IS THEIR SONG.” After a quick Wikipedia consult, I was in a state of self-righteous bliss. Guessing that “Green Onions” was written by Booker T. & the M.G.’s may not seem like much, but pegging a live version of an oft-covered song as prototypical left me pretty damn pleased with myself. Maybe it’ll even come up on Jeopardy! one day.
Booker T. & the M.G.’s wrapped up “Green Onions,” stayed right where they were, and out came three more musicians — two saxes and a trumpet — completing that evening’s manifestation of The Mar-Keys. I didn’t know it at the time, but those seven players would stay out for the rest of the show, backing up one explosive performance after another. This was standard fare for The Mar-Keys, a rotating cast of session guys that served as the backing band for some of the biggest stars in the Stax/Volt galaxy. That said, it’s important to note that those seven guys had a ton of music to learn for the Revue’s European tour. They may have helped record the songs on the tour’s many setlists, but being a session musician means committing parts to short-term memory, recording them and then moving on to the next one.
Even more impressive? Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. His feet barely move, but he’s possessed by every single song — lightning quick on the fret board and as animated as you can be while standing in one place. His head is the best part. His noggin bobbin’ is like something out of A Night at the Roxbury — borderline concussion territory — yet he never misses a beat and seems to be having the time of his life. There’s nothing like believing that the musicians onstage are having fun. It’s one thing that hasn’t changed about live music and never will.
Though The Mar-Keys worked as session musicians, they recorded several albums under their own banner, and they treated the Oslo audience to one of their biggest hits, “Last Night” (which is not to be confused with this “Last Night” or the differently spelled “Last Nite,” which are also fantastic).
I’m not all that far into my journey with soul music, so I knew I had a great deal to learn by watching this DVD. Nevertheless, Arthur Conley’s rendition of “Sweet Soul Music” was an education unto itself, both for me and for the Norwegians who saw it firsthand (according to the DVD’s extensive liner notes, Oslo in 1967 was home to just one record shop that sold soul music). After the YouTube clip above cuts off, with the band grooving in the background, Conley takes a detour to give a quick seminar on the artists that “Sweet Soul Music” mentions — Lou Rawls, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown. There’s certainly an element of showmanship at work, especially near the end, when he does micro-covers of songs commonly performed by three of the five, but there was real public service value here. There was no Internet, who knows what the radio stations in Oslo were playing, and “Sweet Soul Music” had only come out in the States a few weeks before. This was real information. He was teaching people things.
“Sweet Soul Music” is a feel-good song by nature, but seeing it being used to spread the good word about soul music melts my heart and leaves me eager to learn more about the members of that pantheon with whom I’m less familiar.
According to the the DVD’s extensive liner notes, the Stax/Volt Revue tour started with several raucous shows in England (we’re talking rushed stages and police holding screaming fans back), but things cooled down once they left Britain. Apparently, Scandinavian audiences had a reputation for being “heavy-assed” — more reserved and content to stay seated and clap after songs. Add in that this particular show was promoted solely though newspaper advertisements and taped in a half-full Oslo sports venue while snow was falling outside, and you have yourself the recipe for a tepid crowd response.
Well, nobody told Eddie Floyd.
At the “end” of “Raise Your Hand,” Floyd ditches the song entirely, tacking on five whole minutes of grade-A hype-mannery. Let’s go down the hype man checklist and see how he did:
- Jump off the stage — check
- Tell people to get on their feet — check
- Demand hands-related participation (“Clap your hands just a little bit louder…”) — check
- Repeat words like “yeah” and “alright” over and over — check
- Spray the crowd with bottled water — sorry, no bottled water in 1967
Pretty damn good, right? By the time he’s finished, “Raise Your Hand” seems like an afterthought, but who cares? He turned Norwegians into Englishmen/women. I’d compare it to some sort of mass naturalization, but what it really reminds me of is Wayne Coyne’s bubble in reverse — one person picking a thousand people up and carrying them on his back. Makes Wayne seem downright silly by comparison.
Sam & Dave
Now that I’ve watched this DVD and read their Wikipedia page, I feel more than a little ashamed for not knowing more about Samuel David Moore and Dave Prater. “Soul Man.” “Hold On, I’m Comin.” These are canonical recordings, and I had no idea they belonged to Sam & Dave. But here’s the thing — even if I’d been wise to their greatest hits, I still would have been in the dark about something even greater — their live show. Think I’m being hyperbolic? Take it from to Otis Redding’s manager, who said that “Sam and Dave will probably stand the test of time as being the best live act that there ever was.”
If you take nothing else from this blog post, I hope you walk away with a sense of urgency about watching videos of Sam & Dave performing at the height of their powers. It’s not just that they’re singing hit songs. They’re the total package — a powerful composite of the best aspects of the night’s other performers. There’s harmony, screaming, dancing, shaking, emotion, drama, crowd participation… everything you could ask for and more.
And by more, I’m talking about the sweat.
Lots and lots of sweat. We’re talking a veritable river streaming off of Sam’s face and gluing his dress shirt to his torso. It’s as gross as it is awe-inspiring. But Sam’s river is soul music. It’s the perfect embodiment. There’s nothing cool about soul music. It’s hot and messy. It’s about laying your emotions bare and surrendering everything. If you’re singing a song like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” and you’re not a total wreck at the end, you’re doing it wrong. Until I see a river of sweat that beats Sam’s (no, Shaq’s doesn’t count), I’ll be in sound agreement with Redding’s manager.
I’ve been to shows where the opening act is better than the headliner. It’s weird. You feel icky for being disappointed, the headliner feels weird for being disappointing… it can ruin an entire evening. Sadly that’s what happens here.
I’m kidding. Otis Redding absolutely brings the house down.
On second thought, I think it’d be more accurate to say that he picks it up, orbits around the Earth a few times, drops it back down and leaves the building a chaotic mob scene in which Norwegian soldiers are desperately trying to keep people from rushing the stage and tearing the band to pieces. Redding’s performance is the work of a giant who’s standing tall amid other giants, and it’s a wonderful illustration of how real star power can be. Sam & Dave may be great performers, but there’s a reason Redding is the headliner. His charisma during “Try A Little Tenderness” is something to behold. He smile radiates brightly as he scans the crowd for connection, and the double exposure shot that places a young girl’s transfixed expression next to his couldn’t be more telling.
It’s hard to listen to certain parts of this song these days without thinking of Jay-Z, but the more interesting comparison comes at the very end, when Redding repeatedly returns to the stage for one encore verse after another. Could Jay-Z watching the video above have been the genesis of the “Ni**as In Paris” encore phenomenon? You know Jay had Otis on the brain on some level, and I’d be surprised if he hadn’t seen Redding’s Norway performance of the song at least once. Who knows. It’s probably a stretch.
What I do know is that I owe my coworker. Big time.