Judge Victor Valdivia has also got the feelin'. It's a sharp stabbing pain in his chest that never goes away.
"You are in tune with WGBH-FM public radio in Boston. We invite you to stay tuned now, for a live memorial concert from the Boston Garden, featuring Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his group."—from the introduction to the Boston concert
The tumult of the '60s affected everything produced during that era, especially its music. I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the '60s compiles three discs of performances and documentaries chronicling one of the decade's most important artists, James Brown (1933-2006), and makes a convincing case that during that time Brown's authority transcended music, even as huge as his musical influence was.
Facts of the Case
Here are the contents of the three discs in this set:
Disc One: The Night James Brown Saved Boston
Disc Two: Live at the Boston Garden April 5, 1968
Disc Three: Live at the Apollo '68
There had never been any artist like James Brown in the 1960s. There will probably never be one again either. He didn't just almost singlehandedly invent modern funk, R&B, and dance music, he was also a leader for social and political change. Significantly, though he worked tirelessly to achieve the former, the latter was a role that was essentially thrust onto him. He never sought out to be an activist, but the nature of the times demanded that those who commanded audiences and respect use their power for change. This second role was harder to play. It would sometimes overshadow the music he worked so hard to create, it would sometimes earn him scorn and recriminations from the very people he was looking to help, and it would sometimes even risk his life. Nonetheless, he was virtually alone amongst major black stars of the '60s in matching his music with his commitment, and in time he would be vindicated, with a respect almost unmatched by many of his contemporaries.
None of this is meant to diminish Brown's skills as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, and arranger. What Brown did musically was originate a whole new style of music. Funk, as it became known, was deliberately raw, gritty, and loose. Previous R&B artists, especially the groups under the tutelage of Motown, tried very hard to fit in to conventional showbiz, with melodic, polished music that was built around ballads and teenage love songs. Brown's music broke new ground in what black artists could sound like, what they could sing about, and how far they could go to assert their views. Brown's growing social consciousness would reach its peak in late 1968, when he released one of the most controversial and revelatory songs of his career, "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." The song would be credited as the birth of the Black Pride movement, would be banned on some radio stations, and would top the R&B charts (and crack the Top 10). After that, the more timid teenage puppy love of most R&B artists would be outdated, and it would be accepted, even expected, for black artists to express themselves socially.
All of these sides of Brown's career came together in a concert he gave in Boston on April 5, 1968. Giving concerts was already a battle for him, given the endless pressure from promoters for Brown to give segregated concerts (which he flatly refused). On that day, however, the specter of racism would carry even more weight. Twenty-four hours earlier, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. What followed, within hours, were bloody riots in many large northern cities, including Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore. Boston, already the scene of some disturbances, was poised for disaster, and Boston's newly elected mayor, Kevin White, was desperate to avoid bloodshed. He initially considered canceling Brown's concert, but instead agreed to a suggestion by Councilman Tom Atkins to not only continue with the concert, but use it to appeal to Brown's audience (the young black audience, not coincidentally the most likely to take to the streets) to remain calm. White instructed Boston's public television station WGBH to carry the concert live and decided to appear onstage with Brown that night to plead for peace. This was not a decision without apprehension, as Brown had not been informed that his concert was going to be filmed or that he was to be used as an instrument for civic order. Nonetheless, he seized the moment. He urged his audience to respect King's memory by not giving in to violence. He reminded them that he had come from a childhood scarred by poverty and crime but had emerged triumphant. More than anything, however, he played a 90-minute concert of such transcendent power and energy that it was possible, for just a while, to forget all of the pain and anger raging in the outside world. In the end, his efforts were not in vain. There wouldn't be a single incident of racial violence in Boston that night, and Brown would become known to the political establishment as an artist with his hand on the pulse of the young black audience.
Discs One and Two of I Got the Feelin' are devoted to this remarkable event. Disc Two contains the concert in its entirety, taken from WGBH's audio and video archives. Some of the video has not survived, so on a few occasions, the screen goes blank or is accompanied by a still graphic, but because the concert was simulcast on radio, the audio is all intact. Interestingly, the show does not kick off into high gear initially. Though the covers of "That's Life!" (a song made famous by Frank Sinatra) and "Kansas City" aren't dull, they're not the full-force funk assaults Brown is usually known for. Instead, Brown starts the show gently, and quickly leads into an extended medley of ballads that he sings with passion. It's obvious that both he and his audience are still in mourning, and are not ready to start the party just yet. The show carefully builds in energy, however, and Brown shows his skills as a bandleader so that by the time the band kicks into a ferocious medley of "Cold Sweat" and "Do the Pony" (which shows off legendary sax player Maceo Parker to full advantage), the entire crowd is on its feet. There is a brief moment of tension during the final song, when members of the audience come to blows with police officers, but Brown quickly takes control and a possible clash is averted. No other artist, black or white, could have taken such a chance on such a night and made it work.
Disc One contains a gripping documentary made in 2008 about the show, The Night James Brown Saved Boston. Originally aired on VH1 in a 60-minute version, this is the full 90-minute director's cut, with more interviews, more background, and more concert footage. It contains interviews with White, Atkins, several of Brown's band members, civil rights leaders, and concertgoers. The film paints a vivid picture of just how fraught with tension the city was at the time and how the courageous actions of Brown, White, Atkins, and those who put the show together and attended it made it a success. It's a part of the history of civil rights in the '60s that has been almost forgotten, and The Night James Brown Saved Boston is a compelling reminder that should be seen by anyone who cares about music and politics.
The last disc contains another '60s concert Brown gave, in March of the same year, at New York's legendary Apollo Theater. Though this show isn't nearly as laden with pressure as the Boston one, it's still necessarily an expression of social activism. Brown urges the audience to keep their families together and to stay away from the negative influences of the streets. This show was originally aired on TV as James Brown: Man to Man and includes some interview and documentary footage. Consequently, unlike the Boston concert, this is not included in its entirety (some edits were made, sadly, in the middle of songs) and the show's producers inserted several psychedelic camera effects that are immensely distracting. Even with those flaws, however, what remains of the performance is phenomenal. Brown, apparently, simply didn't have an off night back then, and his versions of "I Got the Feelin'" and the closing medley are easily the equal of the Boston show. Together, both shows make this set an unbeatable combination for any fans of classic R&B.
The video quality is variable. Since these shows were shot in the '60s, they don't exactly look as sharp as modern concerts. The Apollo show, in particular, suffers from frequent video glitches, and though it's in color, sometimes looks grainy and murky. The Boston show is in black-and-white but actually looks better, with no glitches and a consistently clear picture. The modern documentary, of course, looks the best. The stereo mixes are clear and loud.
The set has several extras. Disc One contains additional interviews from the documentary, with Brown's manager Charles Bobbit (30:03), writers Rickey Vincent (12:22) and Dr. Cornel West (2:29), civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton (19:23), concert attendee Dr. Robert Hall (4:38), and several of Brown's band members (9:30). None of these are essential, although Bobbit does tell some interesting stories. There is also a "Panel Discussion" (25:32), taped during the premiere of the documentary in Austin. Attended by Hall, Bobbit, director David Leaf (The U.S. Vs. John Lennon), and Russell Morash, who directed the original broadcast, it's a nice companion piece but nothing earth-shattering. Disc Two adds an audio-only speech (7:40) that Brown gave at the beginning of the Boston concert. It's of historical importance, though it's unlikely you'll listen to it over and over again. Finally, Disc Three has a few extra songs, taken from other concerts of the era. "Out of Sight" (3:21) is taken from a 1964 concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show. This is one of Brown's most celebrated performances, for good reason. Also included are two '60s performances from Paris' L'Olympia theater: "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (2:24) and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (10:01). The French audiences are too laid-back to really enjoy the music, but Brown gives it his all regardless. The box also comes with a twenty-four-page booklet containing essays about Brown and the '60s.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is simply nothing that could be nitpicked about this set. Two extraordinary performances that are not just musically important but also pieces of history, a superb documentary, and a nice smattering of extras make this a must-have.
I Got the Feelin' is an essential part of any music DVD collection, and is a perfect introduction to James Brown's music and to the climate of the civil rights era. Highly, highly recommended.
One hundred percent not guilty.
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