[25 October 2007]
Although this is 40-year-old footage, there is absolutely nothing nostalgic about Stax/Volt Revue: Live in Norway 1967, nothing dated about the music, and no reason not to encourage anyone even remotely interested to get acquainted with this performance right away. This 75-minute concert is a wonderful find, a tour-de-force of “clap your hands just a little bit louder” performer-audience interactions, jacket removals, sweat, and some of the sweetest soul music ever created. And its presentation here could hardly be better.
It might be hard to understand, in this day and age, why it took until 1967 for the Stax/Volt legends to make it to Europe. After all, the first hint of fame now enables the average pop star to jet off to every corner of the globe on a whim. Many of the folks at Stax were actually bigger in England and continental Europe than they were in the US, and some of them had been having hit records for several years before they finally journeyed across the pond. By all accounts, when they finally toured Europe, the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
Watching this concert, it’s easy to see why audiences fell in love. As a document of the construction of the Stax sound, this almost full-length show is very educational indeed. Starting off with Booker T. & the MGs and then adding the Mar-Keys before finally bringing the singers into the mix allowed the audience (and today’s viewer) to experience and understand the absolute vitality of the musicians. The five instrumental numbers, which include the big hits “Green Onions” and “Last Night”, provide a fine opportunity to concentrate on the groove. What might occasionally seem monotonous on record (only occasionally!) reveals its subtleties on video.
It’s here that the commentary track, featuring guitarist Steve Cropper, trumpeter Wayne Jackson, and historian Rob Bowman, is especially enlightening. Jackson discusses the necessity of the horn section being perfectly in sync, and the difficulty of playing “Satisfaction” at the rate Otis Redding would demand. Cropper notes the speeding-up of “Green Onions” because the tempo of the record wouldn’t get people dancing in a concert setting. Bowman asks questions both technical and personal. And everyone fawns over the drumming of Al Jackson, Jr., and with good reason since he’s the one who holds the whole machine together.
The first vocalist of the night is Arthur Conley, the Otis Redding protege whose biggest hit, “Sweet Soul Music”, gets a tremendous outing here. Conley draws the tune out long enough to incorporate extended hooks from contemporary hits by James Brown, Sam and Dave, Redding, and Wilson Pickett, a nice touch that makes for a more varied piece of music than the studio recording.
Eddie Floyd comes across as considerably smoother than the raw and manic Conley, but “Raise Your Hand” ups the ante in an important way. Floyd leaves the stage to mingle with the crowd, which is populated by maybe 2000 engaged teenagers. We get a pretty good idea of the range of behaviors exhibited by the Norwegian audience, because there’s an awful lot of crowd shots during the course of the program. Some of the kids closer to the stage are up and dancing, some sit in their chairs clapping and tapping their toes, and at least one girl lies passed out on the floor. It’s interesting to see how no one mobs Floyd when he’s down on the floor, and how no one tries to hop onto the stage, which is only a few feet off the ground.
If Conley and Floyd get the crowd excited, Sam and Dave whip the place into a frenzy. Their four songs are a feast of call-and-response brilliance and the most expressive, creative dancing of the show, as well as proto-Roger Daltrey microphone moves. And the music’s pretty great, too. “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” is the only truly slow ballad in the film, and although it’s missing its first verse, it’s a marvelous performance. The sweat pouring from Sam Moore’s face would bring any mere mortal to his knees, begging for water, and it’s after they’ve been onstage for maybe 15 minutes. If that ain’t proof that the guy’s giving everything he’s got, I’m not sure what is. Moore also goes into the crowd, and tops Floyd’s level of interaction by expressing a desire to share a big bottle of gin with the audience after the show. For sheer energy, the Sam and Dave set can’t be beat.
Otis Redding’s definitive moment on film is probably his turn in Monterey Pop. His full set was captured as Shake! Otis at Monterey, and it stands as a triumph not only for Redding himself, but also for all of soul music. Everything gels, and the “love crowd” gets off on Otis, and he on them, and the performance is one of those that comes from out of nowhere, there was nothing else like it at Monterey, and leaves you wondering what the hell just happened. After you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine Otis Redding ever being more commanding. So having him as the climax to Live in Norway, especially following Sam and Dave, may not seem ideal. You’re pretty sure he’ll be great, but it won’t beat Monterey. His set in Oslo is damn good, though, as he piledrives through “Satisfaction” and “Shake” and does a few mid-tempo numbers too. All that’s missing is a slow-burner on the order of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, which he regularly performed in Europe but which didn’t make it to film.
If there’s one thing to complain about with this video, it can’t be levied at the folks who put it together. Instead, it’s simply that the complete concert, which was taped by a Norwegian TV station, didn’t survive. How incredible would it be to have another half hour or so of this stuff? Even without that extra dessert, this is an indispensable document of a milestone moment in the history of soul music. Fans will love it, other interested parties will enjoy it a great deal, and doubters just might be converted.
In addition to the full-length commentary, this disc includes 20 minutes of interviews and an alternate performance of “Green Onions”. The interviews aren’t as great as the commentary, but they’re worth watching once. And “Green Onions” is… well, it’s “Green Onions”, and it just gets funkier with age. There’s also a 24-page booklet, which includes photos and a lengthy, informative essay by Bowman. It’s a pretty generous, lovingly-made package.