Simply put, James Brown is rightfully the definition of soul. He's been adorned with many a lofty title or nickname over the decades-"The Godfather Of Soul", "Soul Brother Number One", the Hardest Working Man in Show Business", Mr. Dynamite", all may seem extreme, but when it comes to JB they are well deserved. Few, if any, African-American musicians have been so influential in popular music. It has been said that no performer puts on a more exciting, athletic stage show than James, with Brown a whirling dervish, sweat soaked and executing incredible dance moves. With a voice that at times soulful, screeching and more predatory animal than man, his sound is singular. Brown has been a lightning rod for two notable movements in African-American music, the catalyst that turned R&B into soul music, and upped the ante from there effectively innovating what would become funk in the late 60's and early 70's.
From the late 50's on, the number of James Brown hits on pop and R&B charts began to grow, a list of songs that includes "Try Me", "Out Of Sight", "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", "I Got You (I Feel Good)", "Cold Sweat", "I Got The Feelin'", "There Was A Time" brought R&B ever closer to and past the edge into funk music. Being someone who followed soul, funk and rhythm and blues music from the early 70's on, in a sense I missed some crucial years in the Godfather of Soul's canon, having to go backward and pick them up along the way. When I started listening to James Brown "Super Bad" was tearing up the airwaves with a horn as funky as they come and a mean little guitar riff backing that strong, soul-soaked voice. During that period his music became ever funkier, reaching out to African American listeners more than ever with tunes like "Hot Pants" "Get On The Goodfoot" and "The Payback", all huge soul sellers. As this was the era of the "Blaxsploitation" films, JB also did two movie soundtracks, "Slaughter's Big Rip-Off" and "Black Caesar". It can be said that JB was borrowing from himself over and over again with songs sounding so similar to one another, but he was catering to the dance crowd, so its hard to fault Brown for giving his fans what they wanted.
Though James' creative output seemed to have come to halt in the mid-70's, he tried to stay afloat in the musical waters, releasing a disco album amid growing problems with his finances and the IRS. In the 80's he did score some surprise hits, letting the listeners know that he was still Soul Brother No. 1; most notable among these were a collaboration with Afrika Bombaataa, "Unity" and the breakout hit " Living In America" from the soundtrack for Rocky III. With the advent of rap, JB's contributions loom even larger, being sampled again and again by the stars of that genre and effectively letting their audiences know just how heavily influenced they were by Brown. In the late 80's Brown's world came crashing down amid a well-publicized incident in which he was accused by his wife of assault and battery. His personal battles wound up in an interstate police car chase and threatening people with a handgun. This landed him a six year prison sentence, which many thought excessive; he was paroled after serving two years. Upon release he tried putting a few new recordings out during the 90's, some of them quite good ("Universal James" and "I'm Back" come to mind) but has never regained the radio play with anything current that can compete with JB classics such as "I Got You (I feel Good)", "Super Bad" or "Sex Machine". Regardless, James Brown has cemented his place in soul music as one of, if not the most important black performer of the rock and roll era.
Founded in 1967, the Montreux Jazz Festival has established itself as one of the most prestigious music events in the world. The extraordinary list of artists who have played there over the last 30 years is drawn from across the musical spectrum. With the consent of both the festival and the artists, Eagle Vision is making these concerts available for the first time on DVD. While a statement like this could be construed as hype by many, the list of concert DVDs the company has already released is indeed diverse and star-studded. This reviewer has already watched and/or written reviews of Montreux performances by the likes of Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Alice Cooper, The Jeff Healy Band, James Brown, Candy Dulfer, Suzanne Vega, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, David Sanborn, Joe Sample, Marcus Miller, Bonnie Raitt, Ella Fitzgerald.....the list goes on and on. With three decades of great musicians and performances in the vaults I'm hopeful there will be many more gems like this 1981 James Brown concert to come.
Listed below is a set list of the concert-
2. It's Too Funky In Here
3. Gonna Have A Funky Good Time
4. Try Me
5. Get On The Good Foot
6. It's A Man's Man's Man's World
7. Prisoner Of Love
8. I Got The Feelin'
9. Hustle (Dead On It)
10. Papa's Got A Brand New Bag
11. I Got You (I Feel Good)
12. Please, Please, Please
14. Sex Machine
Hey, it's JB. Funkily attired in red jumpsuit with that long straightened hair, Brown shows up to give the fans their money's worth; the man seems to start pouring sweat before the end of his opening number. As this is circa 1981 he looks to be in pretty good shape given his age, and still manges to display some of those whirling, twirling acrobatic moves for which his stage shows have become legendary. Mind you, he's a bit more conservative with them, and they are used to keep the crowd on his side more often than not, but liken it to any aging athlete- he's still got the goods, he just can't go all out for the whole game anymore. Even when those gravity defying stunts aren't being used, he's still moving, shaking and staying busy. The voice hasn't changed much; primal, guttural, screaming James Brown..... you aren't watching James to appreciate the lyrics, or even to decipher all of them. I've seen JB give FAR worse shows than this in the last decade or so on video; these days JB on stage is a bit more like seeing a caricature of James Brown (he's still on tour these days- in fact soon playing a venue within a half hours' drive of my house) but the 1981 James was still very capable when it came to electrifying an audience.
The show itself is textbook of the kind of live performances the Godfather of Soul has been giving since the 80's, more "Las Vegas Elvis" than "Apollo Theater James Brown", but to my surprise he was still putting on a darn good show at this point in his career; when he slows down for the wonderful ballads "It's A Man's World" and "Please Please", you're on his side, witnessing a man pouring out his soul for all to see. James had become something of a craftsman by this point, but he was still quite good at plying his trade and had the physical tools needed for the job. James has always had a penchant for having an awesome backing band and singers, and he doesn't disappoint here.
The J.B's back their boss in in typical JB fashion, complete with funky horn section though alas, greats such as Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley are absent, and a swaggering guitar section led by Ron Lasser and Jimmy Nolan. Brown gives an interesting tribute here in an extended take of "It's A Man's World", imploring the crowd to share their love for greats that have passed on such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and John Lennon. Many of the big hits are here in some form or another, too often abbreviated- "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", "Get On the Good Foot", "Sex Machine", "I Got You (I Feel Good)"and "The Payback" among others, belting away at his indecipherable best- bring the man his cape!
Aspect ratio here is listed as 4:3 screen format so I presume this is 1.33:1 fullscreen. Colors appear accurate and while the picture could be a little sharper, the image is clean and very watchable.
Eagle Rock has been very good about giving the buyer a solid choice of audio tracks from which to choose, and such is the case here as well. You have your pick of Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS Digital Surround Sound and PCM Stereo. The 5.1 tracks are both quite enjoyable; crisp and clear with solid highs. My only complaint is that the tracks could have gone a bit deeper on the lower end, but this is likely due to the dynamics of the recording itself rather than the mix. What is here is plenty dynamic.
As has been the case with many of the Montreux discs, the one extra afforded the buyer here is one well worth having- a 10 track audio CD of the DVD concert.
Good Gawd! This one is a bit tricky. I've been a huge fan of James Brown since the 70's and have listened to scads of JB recordings in the last 35 years. There are a number of earlier, better James Brown live performances out there to choose from ( from my own collection releases such as Live At The Apollo, Revolution Of The Mind, and Live in Paris 1971) but there are also a lot of what seems to be off the wall label, public domain type, later in his career and, well, lousy James Brown concerts as well that seem to have found their way to the marketplace after JB was hot again with the "Living In America" hit. The hitch is, most all of these are audio only, and having looked around for good James Brown DVDs over the last few years I can honestly say this is the best of the bunch available at present. By no means is it a bad James Brown performance- he was still capable of doing most of the things he had done a decade before when this was filmed in 1981. Anyone who is a fan of the Godfather of Soul should enjoy this release, and the accompanying CD makes it a great bargain. Recommended.