50 Years Of Stax – Hollywood Bowl (Los Angeles, CA)
It’s been a half-century since Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton founded Stax Records in an old South Memphis movie house, and Concord Records, the historic soul label’s current owner, has been making the most of the anniversary with some high-profile gigs. In March, Booker T. & the MGs played a smoking, intimate set and backed William Bell and Eddie Floyd at Antone’s in Austin during South By Southwest, with Isaac Hayes performing loosely-defined MC duties. Two months later, those artists were joined by Mavis Staples, Mable John and Angie Stone at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis for a hometown show benefiting the Stax Museum.
Featuring many of the same performers, the “50 Years of Stax” concert was a noble attempt to bring the funk to the Hollywood Bowl. It was a sporadically entertaining but inevitably unsatisfying night. This wasn’t Wattstax, the ferocious 1972 Stax showcase at the L.A. Coliseum. There was no way this wine-sipping, picnic basket-toting audience was going to get down in this cavernous, nearly 18,000-seat venue.
The show’s format also created some problems. It was divided into two hourlong sets — a revue-style opener and a solo stand by headliner Hayes. The first hour’s performers, who barely had time to make an impression, were backed by a house band; sadly, with MGs guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn unavailable, a solid but decidedly inferior group (featuring guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts and drummer James Robertson, who did double duty with Hayes) did the honors.
Randy Jackson was the incongruous host, and many in the audience undoubtedly would have liked to wrap their hands around the “American Idol” judge’s throat. Jackson’s bland jiving, yammering delivery, and inept teleprompter reading were irritants all evening long.
Alfresco diners hadn’t polished off dessert when Eddie Floyd was ushered on to start the show. He’s among the most underestimated singers of his era, with a flexible voice and carefully dispensed power, so it was a drag to see him grappling with the largely inattentive crowd. But Floyd did manage to exhort some people to their feet during “I Never Loved A Girl” before tearing into the mandatory #1 1966 hit “Knock On Wood”.
Mable John — sister of Little Willie John, former leader of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, doctor of divinity, and novelist — awakened the audience with a bawdy march through her succulent 1966 hit “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)”. John definitely knows how to work a room. She asked, “My I see the hands tonight of every man in the house who came here with someone else’s woman?” As the audience howled, she chuckled, adding sternly, “You can’t keep doing that.”
Emanating magnetism, William Bell plain tore shit up during his two tunes. He swung through “Private Number” but saved his juice for “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”, into which he skillfully wove Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”. Bell remains such a warm, potent live act that his cheesily-produced recent albums are all the more disappointing. The new Stax would do well to bring him home.
Lalah Hathaway (daughter of Donny) and Angie Stone represented the current generation of Stax, respectfully essaying Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You Is Wrong” and Shirley Brown’s “Woman To Woman”, respectively. Sans MGs, Booker T. Jones sat down at the Hammond B3 and cooked his way through “Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions” to wrap the first hour.
One has to question the wisdom of booking Hayes as the headliner. Sure, he scored the label’s greatest run of hits on Stax’s Enterprise subsidiary in the early ’70s; for many, Hayes is Stax. But he suffered a stroke in early 2006, and the dashiki-clad, bald-pated star was clearly debilitated at the Bowl, sitting impassively behind a keyboard (he was one of four keyboardists onstage during his set) for most of the evening. At one point, he confusedly referred to the night as a celebration of Stax’s 25th anniversary.
The band ended up doing the heavy lifting. Vocalist Samantha May dueted on “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”/”I Say A Little Prayer” (incongruously, a post-Stax 1977 hit for Hayes and Dionne Warwick). Singer Rhonda Ann Thomas scatted through “Do Your Thing”. And, conjuring the crowd-pleasing excesses of the Bowl’s annual Playboy Jazz Festival, drummer Robertson and percussionist Jason Hann indulged in a showboating jam to end “Walk On By”.
Hayes was vocally listless on numbers such as “Don’t Let Go” and “Joy”. But he literally rose to the occasion for a triumphant closing moment. The crowd roared as Robertson tapped his hi-hat and guitarist Pitts cranked the unmistakable wah-wah intro for the Oscar-winning 1971 hit “Theme From Shaft”, and Hayes got up from his seat to groan the vocals and conduct his keyboardists through the tune’s stabbing, percussive breaks. Like the man said: Can you dig it?