Today, he's the punchline to a Chappelle Show sketch. For a while, he was one of the most notorious tabloid personalities, his crack-haggard face plastered across every sleazy supermarket rag. He gave Eddie Murphy a hit he didn't deserve, and revived the careers of Motown and the Temptations when both were near rock bottom. Yet it will always be that smash rap track, M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" that tends to provide the 'props' for Rick James legacy. Though he was much more than a sample or a scandal, his entire career has been somehow shoehorned into a bass riff and a comic catchphrase.
Dial your time machine back 23 years and Rick James was an urban god. More accessible than that Minnesota sprite named Prince and far more forthcoming with his personal hedonism, James was an icon for the increasing influence of black music. As rap was just making its way onto club playlists, this important and influential artist was exploring the sonic limits of soul, merging as many styles together as he could to express his own concept of sizzling party music. Now thanks to Eagle Vision DVD, we can see James at the height of his powers, before excess would undermine his muse forever. Rick James: Super Freak Live 1982 is a stellar concert showcase that suffers only slightly from some minor technical and cultural glitches.
Rick James didn't start out a superstar. His climb to the top was slow and steady, filled with session work and numerous failed bands. He even had a brief stint in a group with Neil Young. When he signed to Motown in 1978, he had a backlog of material and a burning desire to make it big. From his first hit "You and I" to his last big smash, 1988's "Loosey's Rap", he had a decade of unbridled success. Aside from guiding his own stellar career, he wrote/produced/played on records by artists as diverse as Teena Marie, The Mary Jane Girls (his back-up singers), The Stone City Band (his backup group) and movie star Eddie Murphy (James wrote "Party All the Time"). Many people are unaware that James was a talented multi-instrumentalist, mastering everything from guitar and bass to drum and even woodwinds.
1982 was probably the banner year for James. He had two massive hits ("Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak") and was touring endlessly in support of his newfound celebrity. On his first trip to Europe, he was asked to open the prestigious Rockpalast-Festival in Essen, Germany. James obliged with a sizzling showcase, captured by German television for broadcast. Thus we have the basis for Super Freak Live 1982. In essence a direct lift from that video master (complete with burned in song titles for those unfamiliar with the tunes), this 83 minute high intensity concert is a trip into James's joyous jive. As part of the show, you will see Rick and the band blast through several seminal hits, James will change clothes several times, and his backup band will provide those archetypal drum/guitar solos that exemplified 70s/80s musical show biz.
The setlist, relying heavily on 1981's Street Life, is excellent and features the following titles:
"Ghetto Life" from the 1981 album Street Songs
"Big Time" from the 1980 album Garden of Love
"All Day All Night" cover of the Bob Marley song
"Freaky" - previously unreleased
"Fire It Up" from the 1979 album Fire It Up
"Love Gun" from the 1979 album Fire It Up
"Call Me Up" from the 1981 album Street Songs
"Big Day" - previously unreleased
"Standing On The Top" from the 1982 album Throwing Down
"Mary Jane" from the 1978 album Come Get It!
"You and I" from the 1978 album Come Get It!
"Give It To Me Baby" from the 1981 album Street Songs
"Super Freak" from the 1981 album Street Songs
The names have been numerous, and the categorization complex, but when it comes to describing the Rick James sound, only one word truly applies, and that is 'funky!' Certainly James saw himself as something more than a Jerri-curled George Clinton or a far more masculine Prince. His self-described blend of rock and R&B - which he himself referred to as "punk funk" - was as much heavy metal bombast as Parliament pyrotechnics. One thing was certain, however: James could PLAY. He was an innovator on the bass, employing techniques that today seem basic. He moved the instrument beyond the backdrop to be something both melodic and meaty. Along with his sex and drug fueled lyrics, James music exemplified the changing tide of American music. As disco was drying up, turning corporate and crappy, James proved that there was still life in the far funkier side of dance.
This concert, captured in all its Teutonic glory for this DVD, is kind of a mixed bag. From the performance standpoint it's near perfect. James and his band are amazing, totally in sync, tight as the spandex adoring the Mary Jane Girls, and filled with a love of performing and playing. James is a showman, a man out to completely please his audience, and he does everything he can (singalongs, call and response, welcoming and inviting onstage gestures) to inspire the crowd. Certainly it works, but one can't help but imagine what this concert would be like had it been recorded in, say, Detroit, or New York City. Europeans, especially Germans, are not well known for their hot buttered soul. James really has to work overtime to get these uptight whites in the groove.
It could also be argued that something about James's appearance here just doesn't "feel" right. Maybe it's that lack of a home turf audience, or maybe it's the inability to really let it all hang out on international television. Whatever the case, James appears to be holding back during several sequences in the show. When the hit "Mary Jane" (his ode to herb) is done, he breaks into his classic "Mary Jane March" routine, where the audience is conducted in a classical choral version of the song as James changes the lyrics to explicitly extol the virtues of pot. Here, however, he seems sheepish, suggesting lines that would have been obvious otherwise and failing to do anything other than "fake smoke" onstage. James was always known for his performance excesses (the opening shots of the artist find him swigging from a large bottle of cognac before taking the stage). Yet something about this sojourn into Europe has dampened the Motor City madman's spirit. He's loose, but just doesn't appear to be as free with his freak flag.
Still, it's the music that will make a believer out of you. The Stone City Band is sensational, expertly executing James's intricate charts with split second timing. Every song is thrilling, with killer tracks including "You and I", "Ghetto Life", "Give It to Me Baby" and the Bob Marley tribute "All Day, All Night". James proves he can blow harp (harmonica) with the best of them as he trades scorching licks with his metalhead guitarist. Even when he's pouring on the schmaltz in a big time ballad, he's arresting as Hell. From this concert alone, it seems unfathomable that Rick James would be anything other than a major superstar - or at least an R&B icon - in today's fake soul universe. But somewhere along the line this mighty man of music went sideways, and his career careened into arenas no celebrity should shuffle through. Certainly his own vices accounted for his fall from grace, but maybe it's the times that have changed as well. Even someone like Michael Jackson, owner of the world's record for biggest selling album of all time, can become a performance pariah with a combination of personal and professional missteps.
The journey into drug abuse, sexual assault and jail aside, Rick James was one of the greatest funk artists of all time. His plague of private problems should not sully the amazing music he made, nor should it eradicate his influence from the post-millennial milieu of hip-hop and rap. Though it may not dissuade individuals from thinking of James as a gap-toothed maniac shouting "I'm Rick James, Bitch", Super Freak Live 1982 is a wonderful introduction to what this amazing musician did best. No one was as fiery in their funk as James. Though Clinton and his comrades laid the foundation, it was artists like James who expanded it into all other sonic scenarios. His death in 2004 was surprising in its suddenness, but it was not unexpected. James lived life like he played music - fast, loose and full of danger. As a timeless tribute to his talent, you couldn't ask for a better testament than Super Freak Live 1982.
As this is a television presentation, we end up with a 1.33:1 full frame video image that is clean and almost completely free of defects. Though there is some minor flaring in a few scenes (you can't cover the stage with all those sequins and sparkles and not have some visual feedback problems) the overall transfer is top notch.
Super Freak Live 1982 has not been remastered into some manner of Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS surround track. Instead, it's your basic 2.0 stereo mix that sounds like it was lifted, intact, from the German broadcast tape. There is no attempt to clean up the tracks, to modulate the instruments, or balance the ambience. Instead, we have an arcane aural presentation where percussion occasionally drowns out the other instruments, and James's own bass work finds itself lost inside the dramatic din. Most DVD presentations take pains to reconstruct the soundtrack so that all the elements can be brought into harmony. While the auditory offering is acceptable, it could have been so much better.
Sadly, not a single contextual element exists on this DVD. If you didn't know the real James from that caricature on a Comedy Central TV show, this disc isn't about to help you understand the man. While we're not looking for a Behind the Music documentary, or a series of interviews, it would have been nice to include a basic biography, or perhaps a discography of James' work. A seminal artist such as he should not be saddled with a bare bones concert presentation, yet that is what we get here.
Flaws in the DVD design aside, Rick James Super Freak Live 1982 is a wonderful musical experience. The artist and his cohorts are in complete control of their soul sonic force, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of their incredible skill. If Dave Chappelle's enigmatic take on this sensational soul man has you curious about his ability as a musician, this would be a grand place to start. The playing is near perfect, the song selection amazing, and the overall atmosphere one of good old fashioned funk. Like the best kind of time capsule, Super Freak Live 1982 captures James at the height of his powers, both as a performer and as a personality. He would never be as popular or potent as he was here, and his music reflects that formidable foundation. Surely he got sidetracked after a while, but Rick James was the real deal. He is more than just a rap sample. Hopefully this disc helps to reestablish his reputation - at least from a musical standpoint.
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