A new line of blues and soul DVDs from the Shout! Factory people under the Mojo Working legend has raised a couple of questions for me — ongoing questions. One is whether that “blues and soul” pairing is becoming permanently joined at the hip now. The two genres certainly have had there moments of (as they put it on Sesame Street) “This is near, and this is far,” in terms of how close that connection was viewed by different generations. The first two releases, due out in February, are Otis Redding: Respect Live 1967 and B.B. King: Live In Africa ’74, and that’s the same video series. See what I mean?
I had just graduated high school over the ’67 spring and summer covered on the Otis DVD, in seriously soul-obsessed Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and I clearly recall the total lack of interest there was in the mid-’60s at the quite racially mixed William Penn High in stuff labeled blues, not soul, as I would find out in mistakenly bringing certain LPs to parties, being quite interested in both sorts of tones (and, as ND readers would figure, many others as well). In truth, B.B. King and ’50s contemporaries such as his friendly competitor Bobby Bland fostered just the sort of “soul blues” that black audiences took to at that time – and Albert King was selling records on Stax right along with Redding (and the other Stax stars on the DVD in question here) in the ’60s.
To this day, one of my favorite radio stations, Nashville’s remarkable, freewheeling and unique black-owned and run “legacy” station WVOL-AM, freely mixes the two forms, especially on the great “Blues Cafe” show Saturday daytime, which you can hear online, as you can all of the station’s shows. In any case, live show promoters and critics alike seem determined that ’60s to ’70s soul is a subset of classic blues now, and there seems not much use in fighting it.
The other question these DVDs raise, for me, since they’re both heavily reliant on footage that has been available in other forms, reissued this way and that over and over, is what does make certain filmed performances just keep lasting – besides the obvious fact that someone has reason to believe there’ll be interest (and sales).
A film or video director with a sense of how to capture the performance never hurts. The Redding set here is built, in part, on the rightly celebrated, if by now possibly overanthologized, show filmed in color by D.A. Pennebaker and company at the Monterey Pop Festival, where Otis and band (Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Mar-Keys horns) first engaged the so-called “love crowd.” The B.B. King show, probably the most powerful footage ever filmed of the most successful blues artist since the divas of the ’20s, was captured by ace filmmaker Leon Gast, as he was shooting his Oscar-winning When We Were Kings concerning the week of the ’74 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Zaire. The bluesman showed up in that film only momentarily; this is the full 48 minutes of that big band show, with B.B. at a performing peak at age 49, and 80,000 awed and appreciative African fans on hand – as is Ali.
You have to come to the conclusion that the mysterious chemical ingredients of such a moment do a lot more in making these performances so captivating repeatedly than even the filmmaking talent on display. That central African audience had not had many opportunities to see the likes of Riley King from Indianola, Mississippi, in action before, and it’s the world attention to the place that the title fight was bringing which makes it possible right then. B.B. King sings like it’s the performance of a lifetime; he wants to reach out to this African throng, and even such King standards as ‘Sweet Sixteen” and “The Thrill Is Gone” are, well, thrilling. He’s at his fist-hammering height, and the guitar-playing, inevitably, is there to match. His give-and-take with the full-size horn band behind him, hardly a given set-up at this shows, only adds to the unique, electric situation.
But the footage that gets to me most, and I think would get to you, even more, is the not particularly artistically shot, low -def black-and-white video culled from a telecast of Otis and the Stax/Volt review onstage in Norway, the non-Monterey half of the Otis Respect DVD. This material is extracted from the same show seen at considerably fuller length on the Stax/Volt Revue Live In Norway 1967 DVD released in 2007 by the revived Stax. And it’s tempting to think that the point of its pairing with the Monterey show is to document “Otis, other Stax acts and horns finally getting noticed by white people, 1967,” since this revue had been treasured by African-American audiences for some time already.
But in truth, this set, which tosses in “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s and two Sam & Dave performances, shows the racially integrated Stax crew engaged in the full high-power joy of playing this music, playing together – and finding an unexpectedly strong response from a notably stunned young European audience, an audience that you can tell thought they were in for something like a relatively tame Motown show.
That Live In Norway DVD, by the way, includes the same Otis songs, but more numbers from Sam & Dave, the Mar-Keys and Booker T. And just to watch Booker with the M.G.’s is to see what was arguably the greatest American rock band of them all, of any flavor, having a blast. Who cares if it’s blues or soul, or rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not to be missed, in one video context or another.
While we’re in the realm of DVD blues, I can also recommend two new releases on Vestapol: John Jackson: The Video Collection 1970-1999, which captures performances by the late, always charming D.C.-area old-time acoustic-guitar-slinging songster, – everything from “San Francisco Bay Blues’ to Hank’s “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” – and also includes a short documentary on Jackson’s life. And The Guitar Artistry Of David Bromberg: Demon In Disguise combines latter-day acoustic performances and musical remembrances by an artist who’s as virtuoso a talker as he is a player.