If Sam Cooke’s style is defined by a sort of grace and smoothness, Otis Redding’s feels more like that of a great force held in check, threatening to break loose.
The first thing that stands out in the first segment of Otis Redding: Respect Live 1967 is Redding’s sheer size. At 6’1”, he seems to tower over Booker T & the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn on the tiny Oslo stage. No matter that Redding and Cropper are actually the same height, Redding looks a clear half foot taller.
It may seem an odd first reaction, but it’s an indication of the amazing physicality of Redding’s performances. On record, it’s fairly apparent Redding is a muscular vocalist; if Sam Cooke’s style is defined by a sort of grace and smoothness, Redding’s feels more like that of a great force held in check, and even on ballads, Redding’s voice threatens to break loose. In performance, that restraint is thrown aside, perfect pitch sacrificed in service of an all-out frenzy.
The DVD contains footage of two shows: one from the Stax-Volt tour of Europe in the Spring of 1967 and the other from the Monterey Pop Festival that same year; both were shot by DA Pennebacker within the last year of Redding’s life. Pennebacker’s ability to get astoundingly close to his subjects without attracting their attention, evidenced in Don’t Look Back and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, is on display here as well. The footage has an intimacy that concert films like Scorcese’s recent Shine a Light could only dream of: the viewer has the feeling not so much of being in the audience as being virtually inside the bass drum.
The Stax-Volt footage, shot in crisp black and white, is the lesser-seen of the two performances. After watching Booker T & the MG’s define cool with their performance of “Green Onions”, followed by two Sam & Dave songs that showcase the duo’s playfulness and deftness in interacting with both the band (while a perspiration-drenched Sam Moore lays down the verse for “When Something is Wrong with My Baby”, Dave Prater, with his back to the audience, is getting laughs out of Donald “Duck” Dunn) and the audience, feeding off one another, Redding’s performance of “Satisfaction” comes on like a juggernaut.
Stamping his feet like a man possessed, Redding urges the band to a breakneck speed, locked down by Al Jackson’s drumming, with the pure insistence of his voice. The follow up of “Try a Little Tenderness” begins as a sweet ballad only to speed into the same level of panic, bringing the audience surging to the stage as Redding makes his exit.
After a photo montage set to “Sittin’ On the Dock of a Bay,” we’re treated to Redding’s storied performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, just six months before his death. Again, the intimacy of the shooting is amazing: chills come as much from Redding’s performance as the condensation of his breath caught in the stage lights. The intensity of the lights gives Redding’s bright green suit a brilliant shine and the camera gives enough time to the backing band to remind the viewer that, along with Motown’s Funk Brothers and Mussel Shoals’ Swampers, Booker T & the MG’s are some of the most important players in the history of American pop music.
The only misstep is the decision to use “Try a Little Tenderness” (which Redding dedicates to “all the miniskirts”) as a backing song for a montage of crowd shots. Given the dearth of footage of Redding and the surplus of hippie festival crowd footage, the occasional glimpse of Cass Eliot and Michelle Philips relaxing in the crowd hardly seems worth turning the camera eye away from the stage. Redding’s performance feels more full here, embracing both balladry and frenetic soul, and when he hangs up the mic explaining, “I gotta go, y’all, but I don’t want to go” so that he can bring the whole show to a close before curfew, the finality of the statement feels heartbreaking.
With nothing in the way of special features to speak of and like Redding’s life and career, it’s over all too soon. The brevity of the disc might make it more suited for a YouTube search or a NetFlix rental, but these performances feel like a vital piece of soul music history and the high point of a career cut tragically short.