Judge Ryan Keefer also thinks it's too hot in the hot tub.
He's Soul Brother #1. He's the Godfather of Soul. He's the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and on a summer night in 1981, he's entertained an auditorium full of Swiss with his well-established and electrifying live show.
Quite frankly, it's a shame what happens to stars of previous eras when put in the universe of modern day stardom. They are reduced to paupers, playing to oblivious people that are there for anything other than the attraction itself. On a recent episode of the "Opie and Anthony" radio show, there was a story recalled about Doors keyboardist Robby Krieger playing in a bar in suburban New York for next to nothing, while the perceived cheers of his playing were actually for the local hockey team scoring a goal on television. In the excellent documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Funk Brothers piano player Joe Hunter is reduced to playing for tip money in a hotel lobby. In Frank Zappa's outstanding "The Real Frank Zappa Book," he talks about appearing at a jazz festival with his group, the Mothers of Invention, and witnessing the legendary Duke Ellington pleading for a $10 advance on his appearance fee. Quoting Zappa's response; "We'd been together in one configuration or another for about five years at that point, and suddenly everything looked utterly hopeless to me. If Duke Ellington had to beg some assistant backstage for ten bucks, what the fuck was I doing with a ten-piece band, trying to play rock and roll—or something that was almost rock and roll?"
And while James Brown is known nowadays for his frequent bouts with drugs and law enforcement, sometimes simultaneously, it's sadly diminishing (to some respect) a previous life where he was one of the most charismatic performers in music. Brown founded a rhythm group called The Famous Flames, and their collaborative work helped produce songs like "Please Please Please," "Night Train" and "Try Me." The "Live at the Apollo" album is a desert island collection of music. His musical style transformed into funk in the late '60s with songs like "I Got the Feelin'" and "Say it Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud." With emerging musicians like Bobby Byrd, Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins, it was not a hard leap to make. However with Parker and Collins' departure, by the late '70s and early '80s, he was left with little else except the hits. This performance (along with its accompanying CD) include the following songs:
Amazingly enough, the Montreux Jazz Festival is not only alive, but still kicking, having just celebrated its 40th year. Founded in 1967, the sleepy little festival held over a few days started modestly with musicians like Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. Over the years, the artists who appeared improved (with such artists as Nina Simone, Carlos Santana and Ella Fitzgerald in later years), until it reached a point where it became a virtual event for many artists. An alumni list reads as a who's who of music talent; Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Van Morrison, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie appear. On the same concert listing as Brown were Fitzgerald, Gillespie and blues stars Albert Collins and Taj Mahal.
In this performance, Brown does show off some of the moves that made him famous, and there's no doubt that the set is high energy, and that he works up a good sweat after just 10 minutes. But it's the fast pace and high energy that leave me wanting a little bit more. The tempo of most of the songs was a little bit too quick for my taste, and distorted what I thought was a competent group of musicians' attempts to keep up with things. When he does bring things down a little bit with the ballads, they do work, but not to their fullest dramatic effect. Moreover, there are times when Mr. "Please Please Please" himself may come off as perhaps a little bit confused. He says the Japanese word arigato to a French crowd, and unless he knows something I don't know, it was kind of a funny moment. The sad thing is that at the time of the concert, Brown was in his late 40s, and the splits don't give him the chance to recover like they used to. The collapse near the end of the show isn't as electric a moment as it was in 1962, because it borders on either unintentional humor or genuine medical concern. Brown is just left to sing most of the lyrics to the songs, along with the frequent scream he's made famous.
I don't begrudge Brown or hold him responsible for a subpar performance. I mean after all, aside from some old grainy film footage, the only other time I've seen him perform was with Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. But at least in some cases, less may be more, and while Brown had the presence of mind to change his music with the times, the stage performances are another matter altogether. While the Montreaux organizers have done the man justice (as part of a continuing series of video releases), I'm hoping that more comes out with Brown's old performances to truly capture the scintillating performances he once had in him.
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