The magnificent, essential and legendary James Brown came to New York on Saturday night. The reverberations are still being felt.
Brown — who claims to be 69 years old this year — played BB King's supper club in Times Square to a room that was sold out literally to the rafters and then some. The club had to take out all the tables and chairs in the main orchestra section just to fit in the legions of fans. And the fans ran the gamut — every color, every age, every background. Not bad at $85 a pop.
The result was the feeling you might have expected during Brown's heyday in the '60s when he played small jazz joints and shacks. It had all that intimacy, but updated with air conditioning.
Brown is known mainly now by one nickname — the Godfather of Soul — but long before he gained that reputation he announced himself as "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business." I am happy to tell you nothing has changed. Dressed in an emerald-green silk suit, this Godfather hit the stage with a 17-piece ensemble including three — count 'em three — drummers, no fewer than six female backup singers, two go-go dancers, a ripping sax player, an announcer, and a couple of frighteningly good guitar men.
The band is tight and versatile, able to translate real jazz into blues and then into rhythm and blues, ending up with Brown's own funky language. Listening to them plow through his hits — "Try Me," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Feel Good," "Sex Machine," "Doin' It Right," "Living in America," "Soul Power," and the like — the band showed how obvious it was that Brown, for all his excesses in platform shoes, pompadour and glitter, invented his own lexicon of funk. It doesn't exist anywhere else in music, even in R&B. The James Brown sound is something totally invented, owned and operated by its driver. It's been sampled, but it can't be plagiarized. That's how original it is.
In person (it's the first time I've seen his show in 15 years), Brown was amiable. He seemed to be truly enjoying himself. And listen, the last few years have not been so easy. He made reference to his three-year prison stint (the result of a cross-state police chase) from 1998-2001. Then there was a wife from a 1994 marriage who died in 1996 from a bad plastic-surgery operation. Hello! She was the same wife who accused him of felony assault four different times during those two years. He's also beaten a prescription drug addiction. Ironically he wore an NYPD cap during the first half of Saturday night's show.
Now the new James Brown has a gimmick. He's promoting safety in schools, something he's been on for a couple of years. He's written a song that has this refrain — "Killing is bad, school is in." Not exactly Dylan, but you get the point. During one of his mostly unintelligible but lively monologues, he did say that he had a new small child. This proved, he concluded, "that James Brown don't shoot blanks."
He's right, at least in the musical sense. Even when he ceded the spotlight to band members or backup singers, Brown was hitting his target with alarming regularity. He doesn't do all the splits in his dancing that once characterized his show, but he still moves with the groove. It's impressive. His voice started out a little spotty, but during "Try Me" he really sang beautifully, all the Georgia soul in him just pouring out. We only got a line or two from "It's a Man's World," and snippets of some of the other hits. But "I Feel Good" never sounded better, or was more appreciated by a crowd.
Is James Brown in again? Let's put it this way. He was never out. And when spotlight-grabbing Rev. Al Sharpton took the stage to make some pronouncements, even he couldn't sway the crowd away from the Godfather of Soul. Eventually Sharpton, who started out making some sort of speech, just gave up and joined the chanting of the name of the real star of the night.
From his Friday review in The New York Times of Nicole Kidman in Birthday Girl: "She's happy to fold her limbs around a leading man who doesn't get a neck cramp from having to stare up at the bottom of her chin." Ouch!