James Brown, takin' it to the Stage
This article originally appeared in the January 27, 1987 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
His show may be entirely rooted in the ‘50s, his peers may be golden-oldies circuiters at best — still James Brown insists that he is neither a classic has-been but as contemporary and important, as, well, Run-D.M.C. It’s a claim that’s hard to dispute, at east on the evidence of his performance at the Channel on January 18. Spurred on by the success of “Living in America,” his first Top 10 hit in 13 years and a tune that equaled his highest pop chart position ever, Brown is on yet another career upswing. If the hardest-working man in show business has, at 53, learned to pace himself a little more and sweat just a few drops less, he remains the unchallenged master of funk — often imitated but never duplicated — and he knows it.
Brown’s artistry as a live performer manifests itself in three forms. His band and stage act are rooted in conventions that date from the origin of soul in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and which, in turn, carry on traditions established by ‘30s big bands. No one else but James Brown would carry an announcer with the sole duty of whipping up crowd frenzy. No one else would still choreograph the trumpet-twirling and dance-like choreograph the routines of his horn section. No one else, for goodness’ sake, would still process his hair and hope to be hip. Then again, no one but James Brown could pull off such an act without a whiff of the ridiculous.
The second point about his brilliance is that he remains the only performer in the funk tradition who can draw upon a body of compositions, 30 years in the making. Because his rhythm/vocal/arrangement impulse is so visionary, these tunes never sound dated: the rugged contours and spiky, stripped-down bump beats that make up the likes of “Sex Machine” or “Make It Funky” owe nothing to trends. There is no hint of compromise in them. As a result they are eternally fresh and powerful.
Finally, Brown is one of the few performers in funk who can really sing. His sweaty repertoire of grunts and moans and repetitive phrases tends to obscure his soulful cadences, heart-rending vibrato, and preacherlike intensity. Brown may be the inventor of funk, and he was a Soul Brother when it meant something to be one. All three aspects of his artistry were in evidence before an extremely packed house at the Channel—though rumor has it that he nearly canceled as a result of displeasure with his hotel accommodations. A riot could have broken out if that unfortunate circumstance had come to pass; as it was, at least one near-fight developed in the sweaty wait for the band’s 12:30 a.m. appearance. James Brown is a star; he’s damn well going to act like one, and he certainly expects to be treated like one.
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