The Godfather of Soul’s Vegas Veneer Hits Harlem
22 Nov 2003: The Apollo Theater Harlem, New York
More often than not, the music one hears pumped in from the soundboard while one waits for their singer/band/rapper to hit the stage is indicative of the live music one is about to hear. It’s the law of the pre-show aesthetic. These are the warm-up songs, songs to get you hyped for the real deal. You go to a Def Leppard show, odds are you’ll get a taste of Night Ranger; Talib Kweli; The Roots; Pucho; Mongo; P.J. Harvey; please, don’t even try it. So when the likes of “Word Up” by Cameo, “Lean on Me” by Timex Social Club and “Burn Rubber” by the Gap Band were piped through the speakers of the venerable Apollo Theater instead of, say, “Dance to the Music”, “Let’s Stay Together” or “Shining Star”, I knew we were still living in America.
True, it wasn’t exactly the 40th anniversary of his legendary Live at the Apollo recording as the night was boastfully billed (2003-1962=41); and yes this many tuxedoed and bouffant-haired white people hadn’t been to 125th Street since Bill Clinton had his much hoopla-ed office warming party; and sure the 20-plus Soul Generals and four Bittersweets sounded more Vegas top-heavy than Harlem bottom; and you can bet his code of Jamesbonics is even harder to crack as time grooves on; and damn right we miss Fred, Maceo, Griggs and gang. And it certainly was a freaky sight when Al Sharpton got up on stage to say a few words and remind us that the Rev.‘s slick process rivals the Godfather’s; sure the mullet-haired lead-guitarist can punctuate a Eddie Van Halen inspired solo with David Lee Roth karate kick; no Mr. Brown can’t really hit the high notes or do the splits like he used to (but how many 70-year-olds do you know that can?); true most people stayed glued to their seats (was their suits too starched?); sure there was no encore to punctuate the two hour show; true the paint is peeling from the Apollo’s ceiling; you bet Danny Ray is a miracle of cryogenics; sure the cheapest ticket was 65 bucks (maxing out close to 150); yes the famous Apollo marquee is now hidden behind boards leaving it with a measly digital AP wire-like bulletin that advertised the upcoming Michael McDonald show; no the young tuxedoed white guy to my right didn’t look at me when I said—upon Mr. Brown’s order—“I love you” nor return the favor, though the lovely young Latina to my left did; yes it was annoying that said Latina’s boyfriend loudly sucked her bare arm despite her squealing throughout the slow songs; yes we were tortured by the singing of JB’s over the hill Tiffany-esque wife who tried her best Janis Joplin impression anyway but even more tortured by her husband’s near pleading for us to “give it up” but not nearly as tortuous as when Dan Aykroyd was summoned to the stage to do his little shimmying funk “dance”... but sing, dance, and bring the funk, Soul Brother #1 did.
It’s a mistake obviously to compare James Brown (or anyone else, for that matter) as a showman at 70 to when he was bringing it at 40, 30, 25. It just ain’t right. You can’t compare the inability of Ali’s head to dodge Holmes’s jabs to that same slippery visage that made a mockery of Liston’s fearful guns, or Jordan’s days as a wilting Wizard to his magic as a young Bull. Yet, for those of us too young to have seen Mr. Dynamite put on a show in his prime, or relegated to watching what the celluloid captured for our eyes and the tape for our ears, we can only have hunger for the real funk, his prime gift that shook up the world. If he retired a few decades ago it wouldn’t, obviously, be an issue. But, like Satchel Paige, he carries on. Furthermore, a James Brown show was never just about the funk. He has always mixed the burners with the ballads, the violins with the vamps, the sex with the serene. So, I tell myself, snap out of it.
His band, though light, is tight. Three guitarists (including his son), two bassists (including long-time JB Fred Thomas), two drummers, one percussionist (replete with timpani), one Hammond B3 player, two saxophonists, a trombonist, a trumpeter, a hype man, Danny Ray, four backup singers, a back off singer (guess who), two dancers, a keyboardist and James himself taking turns on a Korg. The show is orchestrated to the very last tics of the cymbal and tips of his dancer’s bleached blonde hair. And strangely enough, the song that was perhaps the funkiest of the evening was his last hit, his Vegas apex, and the coating for the night’s live aesthetic: “Living In America”. Which also pretty much proved that the law of the pre-show aesthetic was pretty much right on. But regardless of whether the funk be heavy or light, if you looked out the corner of your eye throughout the night, the way he clenched the mic on its stand, head cocked to the side, legs, piston-like, driving up and down up and down, it was possible to trick yourself into seeing the James Brown of yesteryear. And if the six-year-old biracial kid wearing the sweater vest and slacks who was busting the craziest, jerkiest funk moves since the Godfather of Soul himself circa 1972 Soul Train in the aisle next to me is any indication, the Funk still has a mighty future indeed.
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