[before this concert went off, i tried desperately to find concert reviews of james brown ... i'm including it here in the event that some other fan is trying to figure out if the godfather still has the ability to put it out or not.]
James Brown was to play at Bimbo's on the 15th. My favorite venue in CA, it's an old art deco, red plushy booth place seating about 500. That the Godfather of Soul would play a venue of this size is a true fluke, caused by only-God-knows-what. To compensate for size, tickets were jacked up to US$135. Normally I wouldn't fork over even a third that much for a show -it'd be Kutrate city, for sure- but to see one of my favorite recorded artists in a venue that
worthy, I bit the bullet ...
I was hoping for moments of brilliance at best, but was fearfully prepared for outright disaster. His last few Canadian shows that preceeded this one received favorable reviews, so maybe just maybe there'd be a chance for something remotely resembling quality.
I wanted to get there about an hour before the doors, but in a series of somewhat lazy circumstances I arrived just as people were being let in the venue. Security was a tad more surly than usual (they checked my hiptop and
shook my cargo pants down for a bulge that was nothing more than ear plugs). The very-scarce (and super-great) seats had all been marked "reserved." Things being what they were, it seemed best to just wait dead center of the mic, one person deep from the stage.
The wait passed quickly and the Soul Generals (Mr. Dynamite's backing band) came on only a few minutes late. After some awkward fixing of some sound problems, they played the obligatory warm-up and then Danny Ray (Butane James's pitch man of 45 years) came out, like he always does, for the announcement. This is the fifth time I'd seen James Brown and have seen the introductions be excrutiatingly long so it surprised me, when in the matter of just a couple of minutes, BOOM the
Godfather of Soul is standing not four feet in front of me.
Donned in red sequins, with a lighter body weight than I've *ever* seen him, he quickly pushed the band into Soul Food
, with an instant smoking sax solo from Jeff Watkins. It looked like it could drop into a night of James instructing people to the front, where he essentially was a glorified band leader, but it didn't turn out to be anything like that at all. For the next two hours he pounded out a set, very much from the front where he was constantly either singing/dancing or playing the korg, that felt almost as if it had been hand-selected by me ...
The playlist was made entirely on the fly, without any pre-thought, including:
* A shortened, but well paced version of Please, Please, Please
* The best version of Papa's Got a Brand New Bag
heard him do live or recorded live (easily better than his version on Live at the Apollo
which is just too damn fast)
* A very acceptable version of I've Got You
(known incorrectly to J.B. heathens as I Feel Good
* An experiment where the Brown tune Soul Power
blended into a cover of Sam and Dave's Soul Man.
The attempt stumbled a bit on the bridge, but came back strong on the end thanks to Mr. Brown's co-singer.
It was a show that was stronger than I'd even hoped for -- I mean, come on, Brown is 72 now -- and the performance really only bit it on a weak version of Living in America
which was sped through much too quickly. Of the 13 pieces in the band, 11 of them were definitely on, the 12th (a soprano sax) heated up when facing off against Brown's smokin' hot guitarist. Only the Soul Generals leader (yes, that same old blond whitey) didn't really catch on, he seemed pretty put off by the early sound problems (or maybe he just didn't have his Metamucil). Hugely and amazingly, there were *no* medleys (God, how I hate them). And with the exception of L.I.A.,
there were no speed throughs.
The band was tight and on top of it. I was close enough that I could easily could see and hear Brown's count-off's and commands, with the Soul Generals, literally, just improvising under command as they went along. Every band member was straining-and-waiting for their counts and cues. Songs would often end with a bridge of something like The Chase
or The Search
and then wrap into another song on a vocal call- out by James. Very often the songs were coded, "do it like your mama says," was a phrase Brown repeated more than once that meant something like "play this refrain three times."
The high points for me were his instrumental Hold It,
a scorching cover of Ray Charles's I've Got a Woman
featuring only Brown on the Korg accented by a few soulful riffs from his now blue-hot guitarist. And, as if it couldn't go any higher, unbelievably
, he did my second favorite instrumental he ever put on record, a cover of Johnny Otis's Every Beat of My Heart.
I nearly stroked out and actually, purely unintentionally, screamed "OH MAN!" so loud that it got picked up by the house sound system. If he'd played Go On Now
(and the way the night was going, it felt very much like he could have) I'm certain I would have died.
Not once, but twice in the show he flung the mic stand out, straight at me, so quickly and sharply that I ducked it only to see James snatch it back by the cord -- the second time, he pointed and laughed at me. The show ended with a sparkin' version of Sex Machine.
All things considered (and there's a frickin' lot to consider here) the best thing for me was being able to see
Brown dance -- actually watch his footwork. Every other time I've seen him I've either been too far away, or too low to the ground. Dance-wise the Fly, the Frug, the Robot and the Swim were all there -- the only thing I didn't see him do was the Mashed Potatoes.
From a physical standpoint the obvious way he's lacking is that so
unable to do the splits, even in the form of something like a flying scissor kick, that he just reminds you how much he's missing when he tries. He definitely needs to work something else out as a substitute for that move.
He also was missing in the high-end of his gutshot screaming, something I would have liked to experienced again. It seemed to me as though he still had that potential, he just needed a little voice rest.
So let's do the unthinkable and compare this to both the Apollo recordings -- something that's not fully fair because I've never seen video associated with those shows (it may not exist) -- but I've heard both the recordings a million times and know the sets and formats forward and backward. Brown had
to have been more energetic at the first Apollo show than he was here at Bimbo's, if for no other reason than he was in his 20's. But
he didn't speed through the sets here like he did at the first Apollo show. Now it's true he whipped the crowd into more of a frenzy on that recording, but as far as frenzied crowds go I'll take young and black (Apollo) over old and white (Bimbo's) any day -- and I certainly can't blame Brown for his audience composition. His backing band is better on both I
than they are here (only because he had the very best backing band ever assembled on those records). His control of the tempo of the show, and
the fact it was spontaneous (both the Apollo shows were played from pre-defined playlists), were better at Bimbo's.
This show edges Apollo II
, mostly because Brown was experimenting with ballading back then, and for damn sure, I didn't hear any Sinatra tunes at Bimbo's (thank God). So, as impossible as it is to believe, 40+ years later, and taking everything
into account, he wasn't that far off his Apollo I
mark, and above the II
That this is even possible
is baffling. Compared to the other four shows that I've seen, this was easily the best paced, although the raw fire of the band as a whole was probably higher when I saw him at the Maritime Hall a decade ago.
Was this show a freak? Just a good alignment of a lot of things? Certainly at least a little. Brown was very clearly impressed (and not acting) over the quality of his sax and guitar player. They were clearly "on," in a very unusual way. The small venue may well have helped -- possibly firing older club memories in the soul Triceratops, or at the very least having the band benefit by all being within an arm's reach. Brown's signals were clear and easy-to-read.
The crowd where I was standing was into it -- but front row crowds almost always are -- it's hard for me to say what the feeling was like deeper in the venue. Was it worth $135? Of course not. No concert is worth $135 (assuming you don't get to see Britney Spears with her providing a "happy ending" at the close). But when you compare all the shows I've ever seen to this one, and consider what James Brown has meant to me in my life (remember, I'm the guy with the signed Live at the Apollo
poster on my dresser), it's hard to say it was a cheat. The icing on the cake? At one point, I think it was during Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,
James Brown came over and started shaking hands with the audience -- eight or so people -- and I was one of 'em.
Can a performance like this be repeated? Logic and theory tells you "sure," but I'm not so certain. Other shows on this tour were definitely more of Brown leading than actually performing and that would have lessend the impact considerably. Both the Chicago House of Blues show
and his show in Washington DC
were vastly different than what I saw -- Brown was far more hands-off there. It feels like I just got real real lucky.
If you've read all the way through, and you've decided to go to a show, whatever you do, get absolutely as close to the stage as you can. Being "there" makes all the difference and would heighten even what would otherwise be a ho-hum show.