The last time James Brown was in town, it was 1977. After a few near misses he finally returns here, to the St James, a suitably funky venue for a very funky guy. After a fine warmup set from longstanding club act Ardijah, Mister Brown's current band, the Soul Generals made their entrance, dressed in sharp sky-blue suits. Onstage were two drummers, two bass players, two guitarists, 3-piece horn section, a percussionist and 3 backing singers, introduced by Mister Brown's MC Danny Ray as the Bittersweets. Then Danny Ray started the build up for Mister Browns entrance ... "Are you ready for the Godfather of soul, Mister Dynamite, the hardest working man in show business?" And so on.
Finally, Mister Brown makes his entrance, casually strolling onstage. What follows is a greatest hits package, which is exactly what you want from a legend like Brown. Even though some of his hits were presented in shortened form, like Please Please Please (including his famous 'stage exit with cape' routine), there was still plenty of funk in evidence. When Brown took things down a notch, like on It's a Man's World, he showed that he still has a hugely soulful voice, giving the song some real grit. He pulled a few dance moves - no splits but hey, the guy's 70! He even threw in a few mic stand tricks, just to show he's still got it.
The crowd was very, very white-bread - very few kids, very few brown faces. Maybe the high ticket prices put some off going. Still, that didn't make me think twice about buying a ticket.
Some commentators suggested Brown seemed more like a cameo in his own band, letting them take extended solos, and noted that he even passed the mic to one "of his hair-tossing female proteges take centre-stage for an overlong bracket while he conducted the band or held his place behind the keyboards." The cool thing was, even when he wasn't on the mic, he was always in control of the band, via his hand gestures. They followed his lead very closely. And as for the female protege, well she's Ms Tomi Rae, aka the current Mrs James Brown. She is also the woman Brown is currently up on charges for assaulting back in late January. The couple had previously announced their separation, placing an ad in Variety in July 2003 noting it was a "mutual show business decision" to "go their separate ways." The accompanying photo is the couple and their three year old son at DisneyWorld posing with Goofy. Ms Tomi Rae is 33, and looks like a sultry Vamperella character.
Yet there she is on stage, singing a love song to Brown, and clearly they are still a couple; Brown takes her hand and leads her offstage at the end off the show. At a press conference in Melbourne, after his Auckland show, Brown was faced with a question on the domestic violence charge, much to the disapproval of the Brown camp, who had asked for no questions on this (check the mugshot). Brown, who was sitting next to Tomi Rae, asked the journo straight back if she was married.
"You're not? Well then you wouldn't know what I'm talking about anyway," he said. "Ask all the married couples -- they know. You get up on the wrong side of the bed and everything, but we're doing fine." Go figure. Yes, James Brown the legend came to town. He may not have been like the records of 30 years ago, but back then he had Bootsy Collins, Jabo Starks, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker playing alongside him - some of the funkiest players on the planet. You got the spectacle, you got the soul, you got the funk - what else is there?
Public Enemy's Chuck D caught James Brown late last year, in Atlanta. "When Mr. Brown took the stage the ATL immediately roared for their Georgia son. The very first cut was Make It Funky signifying that James and the Soul Generals were gonna pull some joints out the bag. Highlights included JB doing two microphone stand tricks that left the crowd stunned as if MIKE JORDAN threw it. Bursts of dance energy came at the crowd and wowed them. At 70 he moved, grooved, and cold sweated us to death... This was JAMES BROWN in his 70s doing it like he did it in the 1970s. No doubt. The double drummers even played high speed funk thru the finale of SEX MACHINE when the venue cut the power, as it’s known to do. The point is that it was more turbo energy than cats twice his age using multimedia crutches."
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Peter McLennan blogs about stuff at Weapons of Mass Distraction