CD Review: Otis Redding 'Live on the Sunset Strip'

CD Review: Otis Redding 'Live on the Sunset Strip'
All Access Review: A

Awkward, clumsy, maybe even a bit oafish, Otis Redding didn’t dazzle crowds or make girls swoon with suave, sophisticated dance steps. He left the polished choreography to those slick, twinkle-toed Motown crews, with their impeccable footwork and stylish moves. Redding, being the showman that he was, albeit one who wasn’t afraid to show genuine emotion, would be more inclined onstage to fall on the ground in tent-revival ecstasy and rip those snazzy suits he wore right off his body. And if he could have, he would have plunged his sweaty hand deep into his chest cavity and pulled out his still beating heart for all in the audience to see.

Nothing like that happened at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which served as Redding’s coming-out party. Still, his raw energy, infectious smile and powerful drive, presented without the slightest bit of guile, left no doubt to anyone in America, including those who had no idea who he was before that monumental event, that he could deliver the goods live.

But, what was it exactly that set tongues wagging from sea to shining sea about this tall, gangly African-American soul singer from the South? Was it that his singing, at once soulful and pleading, before exploding with joy and inexhaustible emotion, was so passionate and honest that it simply couldn’t be ignored? Could it be that he was one of the most physical and hardest working of all soul and R&B men, James Brown included, and that he always wore his heart on his sleeve, wringing every drop of blood, sweat and tears out of every song he did and never reaching that point where he just simply gave out?

Yes, yes and, again, yes, but Redding was doing this long before Monterey. In fact, California had witnessed his power to galvanize an audience the previous year, when Redding brought his own band to Los Angeles’s Whisky A Go Go and turned the place inside out, as the two-CD, 28-song Live on the Sunset Strip points out in such strikingly rich sound and unadulterated realism – all the good-natured between-song chatter, crowd applause and riot-inciting introductions that yell out “Are you ready for star time?” transporting you back that hot, sweaty club.

In 1966 having marked a turning point for Redding in terms of national, and perhaps international, exposure even before Monterey, he was at the top of his game when these recordings were made. What sets them apart from other live recordings of the time that Redding made with the Bar-Keys or Booker T. & the MGs was the simple fact that … well, those famed backing bands weren’t there and Redding’s own hand-picked unit was. For that alone, this release might be considered a historical artifact.

But, holy God, don’t believe for a second that that is all there is to the lively, combustible Live on the Sunset Strip, which features three start-to-finish, guns-a-blazing sets in their entirety. Backed by tight, radiant horns and full-bodied instrumentation that bleeds with him when he bleeds and rejoices when he’s ready to summon angels from heaven, Redding tears through multiple covers of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (Disc 1and Disc 2) and stomps (in the best way possible) gleefully all over The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” (only on Disc 2), while injecting “Respect,” the song made famous by Aretha Franklin that he wrote, with a lethal dose of testosterone. And he huffs and puffs his way through three powerhouse performances of “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” each one leaving you more breathless than the last, and pleads, or perhaps “prays” is a better word, expressively for second chances in “Just One More Day,” three gripping versions of “Chained and Bound” and “These Arms Of Mine.”

Speaking of Brown, Redding embraces “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in Set 2 of Show 3 on Disc 2, stopping midway when the mood strikes him and then starting again, adding his own lyrics, in an improvised throwdown that includes a jazz-flavored sax solo that fits perfectly and unstoppable, tasty grooves that never once let up. When Redding asks the crowd if they’re tired and they answer, “No,” you can’t help but scream in agreement, even while reading the detailed and smartly written, well-researched liner notes by Ashley Kahn in the accompanying booklet, a great color photo of Redding flanked by go-go dancers adding to the overall experience.

Thrilling to the absolute last note, Live on the Sunset Strip is a must-have for any Redding fan and should be required listening for today’s soul and R&B pretenders. This is how it’s done, kids.

-         -  Peter Lindblad 

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