To be brutally honest, Isaac Hayes isn’t healthy enough to deliver a convincing 45-minute set; it should be considered a flaw in an anniversary celebration to stroll down memory lane with guest performers; and 10 minutes of stage time just isn’t enough for William Bell and Mable John. Performers associated with Stax Records, the icon of Memphis soul from 1959 until the mid-’70s, plus a pair of artists freshly signed to the restarted label gave energetic yet short perfs of gritty soul before Hayes, aided by three extra keyboardists, filled the second half of the night with slick textures and an unsteady baritone.
For anyone not familiar with the label’s history, it’s a jarring leap from Booker T.’s earthy “Green Onions” to Hayes’ slick disco hit from ’74, “Joy.” Performers in the first half of the evening celebrated the honesty and humanity that sparked one single after another; Hayes worked in a wash of electronics saved only by a driving duet on “Do Your Thing” with the superb scatter Martha Thomas.
In many ways, the most important person onstage during Hayes’ set was the guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts, the man who played the rhythm track on the recording of “Shaft” and ably executed the fuzzed-out and wah-wah guitar tones that Hayes’ music calls for, especially on his version of “Walk on By” (relatively solid) and a round of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “I Say a Little Prayer” (an off-key train wreck).
First half was all exemplary performances, mostly of odes to romantic mistreatment. Each artist did a stretched out version of a hit as if they were closing their own gig: Eddie Floyd pumping the crowd with “Knock on Wood”; John turning “Your Good Thing Is About to End” into a lecture on treating a woman properly; Bell slipping “You Send Me” into “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”
Lalah Hathaway delivered a devastating version of “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right)” and Angie Stone’s reading of “Woman to Woman” was a solid tribute to talking soul; both women have inked with the label.
Night closed with the entourage singing Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” No matter how you slice it, Redding was Stax’s most significant artist, the greatest soul singer ever, a stunning stage performer and a fine songwriter to boot. To sing his softest hit felt like an easy way out, a disservice to his memory. The Redding songbook deserved a 15-minute set unto itself, and, whether it was Bell or a young soul singer like Ryan Shaw handling the covers, it would have made the evening feel complete.
Concord Records, the new owner of Stax, is reviving the legendary label’s catalog — an Aug. 28 release date for a three-CD “Wattstax” set was just announced — and it certainly opens doors for these forgotten musicians. Sadly, attendance was less than 9,000 people, suggesting there’s work ahead to get the public to identify the label with some of ’60s soul music’s finest sides.