In 1967, iconic Memphis soul label Stax took some of its best artists -- Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, and more -- on a tour of Europe. The trip put a racially integrated band and some of the era's most feverish black R&B singers in front of mostly staid audiences that had never seen anything like it before. And Stax's fiery performers didn't tone it down: their stages became swamps of sweat night after night, as each singer tried to outdo their predecessor over the unrelenting groove of the Stax house band, Booker T. and the MG's.
The Stax revue performances are now legendary, for good reason. And tonight, psych-soul outfit Harry and the Hit Men will be performing the entire 1967 Stax Revue concert from Norway at the Great American Music Hall. Although nothing could match the original shows, tonight is pretty much guaranteed to become a wild dance party.
The Santa Cruz group specializes in Stax and Motown covers, but even for them, learning to perform the more than hour-long Norway Stax show presented a few challenges. "It was tough," recalls band member Scott Markson, who plays keyboards and trumpet, and also sings. "These are just incredible performances. It's very inspiring, which was a big help, but it definitely took a lot of time."
The group studied the film of the 1967 Norway show to prepare, but even having visual confirmation of what the musicians were doing didn't answer all the questions that arose. "[We were] realizing that some of the things they do are just mistakes," Markson recalls. "Do we do that? Do we do what they meant to do?" In the end, he says, the group decided to completely replicate the concert, mistakes and all.
Harry and the Hit Men have performed the Stax concert before in Santa Cruz -- it made for a great New Year's party, Markson says -- but tonight will be their first time playing it in San Francisco. Opening the show are Sun Hop Fat, a 10-piece Ethiopian funk band based in Oakland, and S.F. art-funk-rock staples Battlehooch.
We're hoping the highlight of the night will be the conclusion: The end of the 1967 Stax Revue shows were marked by none other than Otis Redding -- who would die in a plane crash later that very year -- leading an explosive rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness." (That's the song Jay-Z and Kanye West sampled for last year's hit "Otis," of course.) Onstage, Redding drove the song from a jazzy quiet into a chilling, panoramic climax that Harry and the Hitmen will have to approximate tonight: