Even at 72, James Brown still don't take no mess

by Lindsay Barnes | 5/11/05 5:00am

It's not easy being a legend. By definition, it means that one's reputation is so great that it's nearly impossible to match in reality. Moreover, as time passes, the reputation only grows to greater proportions, as the actual person behind it ages and looks less and less like the legendary persona.

But James Brown is no ordinary legend.

On Monday, May 9, the Godfather of Soul took the stage at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts and delivered a 90-minute set that gave the audience everything for which he's famous. The fleet feet, the perfect hair, the precise execution, the "heyyyyyy!" ---- it was all there, live and on stage. He got on up, he made it funky, he took it to the bridge, he got up off of that thing and by the time he hit it and quit, he proved the legend was no lie.

This concert was old school showbiz at its finest. After a regal introduction from his longtime master of ceremonies Danny Ray, Brown emerged to stand at the center of a wild, well-oiled extravaganza of funk and fury. In addition to his 10-piece backing band the Soul Generals, Brown also enlisted the services of his three back-up singers, collectively called the Bitter Sweets, buxom-babe vocalist Tawny Ray, a tuxedoed sidekick he simply called "R.J.," plus two dancers who looked and moved like graduates of the Dallas Cowboys School of Cheerleading. It was just the sort of colossal "give the people what they want" show that used to dominate the concert circuit but has since fallen to the wayside in favor of more minimalist fare. It would be one thing to watch, say, Ryan Adams try to pull off this kind of flashy display, but to see a master showman like Brown do it is to know where everyone from Prince to Usher got their inspiration.

Given the size of this production and the age of his vocal cords, Brown's onstage role was more bandleader than lead singer. As entertaining as it would have been to see him doing splits and hitting high notes all night, watching Brown direct the Soul Generals was a treat indeed. With a flick of his wrist or a pop of his hip, Brown could make his band turn like a Porsche careening down the Autobahn. For Brown, "Hit me!" was not an exclamation, but rather a command to which his band had to acquiesce immediately. The tight musicianship of Brown's records is what has made them enduring classics, so to see the inner workings of Brown and his band was a thrilling spectacle unto itself.

That's not to say that Brown has lost his chops as a frontman. He squealed, shouted, grunted and wailed his way through hits like "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Make It Funky," "Mother Popcorn," "Gonna Have a Funky Good Time," "Try Me" and "Get on the Good Foot." He even managed to keep the show fresh by throwing in a few unexpected twists to the old favorites. For example, he proved he was still hip to the kids' jive when, in the middle of one extended jam, he sang a few bars of Outkast's "The Way You Move."

Finally, it came time to close the show, and he waited until the audience was "good n' ready" before he delivered the coup-de-gras closer, a raucous performance of "Sex Machine" that left the mostly white, middle-aged audience clamoring for more like it was 1962 at the Apollo Theater all over again.

What made this night truly amazing was the fact that the strutting, screaming soul brother onstage just turned 72 years old this month. While he has lost a half-step and a half-octave since his heyday in the '60s and '70s, he showed he could still do the same famously high-energy show he'd always done without being an impression of himself. It's this feat that confirms once and for all that as long as he has anything to do with it, James Brown will always be the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

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