“GET UP OFFA THAT THING...
& TAKE IT TO THE BRIDGE...”
: THE JAMES BROWN REVIEW
LIVE IN LEEDS
GIG REVIEW OF JAMES BROWN
at THE UNIVERSITY UNION, Leeds
‘Are you ready for some SUPER-DYNAMITE Soul…???’ ‘Who do you want?’ JAMES BROWN! ‘Who do you want?’ JAMES BROWN!! ‘Who do you want?’ JAMES BROWN!!!
As the eleven-piece commendably racially-mixed band troop on, all red uniforms, clip-down ties, and cummerbunds, someone says ‘Butlins’. And it is. This is an old-style Soul Review. An act surreally disconnected by a span of decades from everything else in this time-frame. But it’s by light-years the funkiest, wittiest, hippest show around. A Masterclass in Soul Mythology. Everyone solos. Everyone gets their moment in the spot. And if you suspect this is a strategy to take some weight from the seven-decades-old shoulders of ‘Soul Brother no.1’, think again. He’s always there. Moving. Directing. Conducting. Inspiring. Drawing out the four girl backing-singers. Joining the two Go-Go dancers who’ve stepped straight out of some cheesy 1960’s ‘Shindig’ TV-show. Dueting with statuesque guest-diva (and sometime wife) Tomi Rae Hynie. While there’s an MC, a stalking Spiv, a cajoling pimp whose sole purpose is to whip up response, urging and provoking the audience - ‘All the people over there, raise your hands. All the people over here, raise your hands.’ It’s pure Pantomime audience-involvement. But it works.
Mr James Brown is 200% pleasure. 200% energy. He might have problems with braces-slippage beneath his slick-black fringed jacket, which also conceals what looks suspiciously like a corseted girth. His bouffant is still a lush curiously rich black. But he dances, snapping his ludicrous body to that trademark house-rocking groove - stopping theatrically to give a questioning ‘what-happened?’ at the spontaneous ovation his moves provoke. Is he ripping the piss out of himself? Sure he is. You know by the way his cavorting comes delivered with a grin from here to here. But what he’s working from still throbs with the unarguable funkiness of one of the greatest musical heritages of the last century.
What to expect? He was born 3rd May 1928 - or 1933, depending on which source you prefer, in strictly-segregated Augusta, Georgia. Yet both a young Mick Jagger and a still-younger Michael Jackson stole his steps. Without his ‘New Breed’ Dance-Funk - an elision of Soul and Jazz razoring the stripped-down lyric-content to a hypnotically minimalist phrase-based song-structure, revolutionising and re-defining the entire R&B idiom, there would have been no Bootsy Collins and no Prince. While he’s drip-fed Hip-Hop its most sampled break-beats. “Please Please Please”, his debut, was as long ago as February 1956. “Try Me” - his first National chart hit, as far back as 1959. Then “I Got You (I Feel Good)” blueprinted his raw funk-formula while becoming a US No.3 in December 1965, the calculated hysteria and absolute musical precision powering his classic ‘Live At The Apollo’ albums already apparent, through into the “Soul Power” Dance-grooves of the 1970’s. Along the way there’ve been gun-offences, narcotics and sexual-harassment charges, while he’s done the White House thing for crooked Presidents whose names are now-forgotten newsreel history for his ‘Say It Loud’ Black-&-Proud Raps. And he’s still here. Dinosaur doesn’t come close. But if the significance of all that true radicalism is now blunted by deserved celebrity - then that’s largely because his shrewd financial self-control in a traditionally criminally exploited arena, his fiercely independent racial defiance, and his superhuman work-load are now taken as read. Here, just to witness that famous flesh would be enough. For him to be half-way good would be a bonus. But he does two hours-plus. And he’s great. He leaves us banging for more, but after deliberately cranking up the expectations, he calculatedly won’t encore. Show-Biz rules say ‘Leave them wanting... so we wait...’
Now, “Get Up Offa That Thing” (from September 1976) and “Soul Power” leads into a duet on Sam & Dave’s mighty “Soul Man” - turning it around into a tribute to ‘The Hardest Working Man In Show Business’ himself, into Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”, and a high-energy “Can’t Turn You Loose” with the band furiously riffing like Otis Redding’s Stax-crew at their fiercest. ‘It takes a week to balance the sound for a band this size’ he explains about some imaginary acoustic defect, predatorily stalking functioning mikes. Then – ‘if B.B. were here tonight, he’d sound like this...’ leads into a King-size guitar solo. Then there’s the drum battle. Two drummers warring in massive detonations, one with an Afro big enough to hide the entire fugitive al-Qaeda network, swaying perilously like a monster bush in a storm. Until the percussionist above them kicks in to take it even higher. When did you last applaud a guitar solo? When did you last see a drum cutting-match? This is a Soul Show. An R&B variety concert. And it works, 200%. As “Please Please Please” dissolves into the opening of a curiously misogynistically patronising - yet still movingly intense “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” - they throw that green sequinned ‘Godfather Of Soul’ cape over his shoulders which are now collapsing with choreographed passion. Just as we saw in that ‘Ready Steady Go’ Special way back in, was in 1966? It worked then. It works now. And if it ain’t bust...
“I want Fish & Chips” demands Mr Brown suddenly, out of nowhere. “No, Mr Brown. You’ve got to sing ‘Sex Machine’ first. Then you can have Fish-&-Chips” scolds Kelly of the Bitter-Sweets.
So he does “Sex Machine”. And it’s relentless. It’s perfect. It’s a timeless pleasure...
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