You don’t need any more evidence that Otis Redding was one of the most electric live performers of the 20th century, or that Booker T. & the MGs were the most sympathetic of backing bands, or that, when push comes to shove, Stax edges out Motown in that ongoing R&B label grudge match in your head. But you do need the new Redding compilation Live in London and Paris, because it’s like listening to dynamite, and, what the hell, it doesn’t hurt to reinforce your own steely convictions if the reinforcements are this incendiary. Screw the supercollider, man — this record sounds like it’ll open up some black holes — blam! — and sing you all the way over to that alternate dimension. With all due respect to Einstein, the usher of my transcendence is spelled O-T-I-S.
The crowds at London’s Finsbury Park Astoria and Paris’s Olympia Theatre, in March of 1967, would no doubt share my opinion: their collective mantra of those four letters summon Redding onto their stages and into their presence, and his consequent performances throw down enough science and gospel to fill copious textbooks and bibles of your choosing. Some of the songs from these two performances have been previously released on old, out-of-print compilations (Stax Volt in Europe, Vol. 3, for example), but this is the first time they’ve ever been made available in their entirety, as originally performed. While the performances aren’t exactly a revelation (for that, Redding would have to be a relatively unknown or underrated artist), they’re about as striking and extraordinary as live performances get. Both the London and Paris set open with “Respect”, which sounds like it’s been locked up for three hours doing speed in some European basement — already, Redding is breathless (“hey-hey-hey!”) and overtaken by the rubber-taut lead afforded by the MGs and the Mar-Keys, the Stax label’s whip-smart horn section. Aretha Franklin’s paradigm-shifting cover was still one month away at the time of these performances, and Redding sounds unchallenged and yet already fighting to make the song sound like it’s defending something.
Redding and the band toss out a few contemporary R&B covers — the Temptations’ “My Girl” and Sam Cooke’s “Shake” — and Redding chews up his own inserted words and asides, the frantic instances of “gotta-gotta-gotta”, like they’re pieces of gristle. On the furious speed-snake through the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”, this funked-up translation of Liverpudlian bliss, Redding’s voice comes down like hedge clippers on the words, on chunks of the words, and when he hollers “she teased me just a little bit, y’all”, you sit up and listen as if he was telling you how to perform an emergency tracheotomy. “In that midnight hour, want satisfaction”, he cries out during a rat-a-tat run through “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, more excitable than the Rolling Stones have ever been, his voice this crumpled-up knot of effort and exhaust.
The set lists for both shows are pretty much the same (Paris adds “I Can’t Turn You Loose”, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, and “These Arms of Mine”), but it’s a testament to Redding and the band that each show offers an equally rapturous experience despite the overlap of material. And honestly, if you can’t get excited about at least two different crowds offering call-and-response accompaniment to “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”, then you’ve obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere. Both shows are closed with an epic rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness”, quite literally the showstopper to end all showstoppers — there’s just no way that any performer, not James Brown and not Little Richard, could continue after this kind of sweaty denouement. Redding continues to emerge back onto the stage, in front of the microphone, even after the emcee has announced his departure, preaching tenderness but practicing a contradictory kind of tough love — on and on and on into that unsuspecting night.